The Pilot and the Little Prince: Beloved Illustrator Peter Sís Captures the Bittersweet Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
How an adventurous little boy came to dream up the loveliest children’s book of all time.
By Maria Popova
“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.
That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library | IndieBound) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.
Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, a golden age of discovery, just as airplanes had been invented in France and the dawn of aviation was emanating an exhilarating spirit of exploration and invention. Young Antoine quickly became enchanted with that exhilaration and at the age of twelve, he built a makeshift flying machine.
It did not take off, but this didn’t discourage him.
That summer, he rode his bike to a nearby airfield every day to watch the pilots test planes. He told them he had permission from his mother to fly, so one pilot took him up in the air. His mother was not happy. Antoine couldn’t wait to go up again.
The obsession had permanently lodged itself into his psyche. When the war came and he was summoned to military duty, young Saint-Exupéry requested the air force but was assigned to the ground crew. Again, he remained unperturbed. Two years later, when he heard about a new airline operated by the postal service to deliver the mail, he got himself hired — first as a mechanic, and soon as a test pilot, eventually learning to fly by accompanying other pilots on mail routes. Sís writes:
One day, he heard the news he had been waiting for: he would fly the mail from France to Spain by himself. Henri Guillaumet, another pilot and later Antoine’s good friend, told him not just to depend on the map but to follow the face of the landscape.
Saint-Exupéry was living his dream, flying in Europe and West Africa. Eventually, the airline assigned him to an airfield in Cape Juby in southern Morocco, and the two years he spent in the desert were among the happiest in his life, a period he would go on to cherish with beautiful and bittersweet wistfulness for the rest of his days. Sís captures the romantic poetics of the experience:
He lived in a wooden shack and had few belongings and fewer visitors. With an ocean on one side and desert everywhere else, it seemed like one of the loneliest places in the world. But he loved the solitude and being under millions of stars.
The locals came to call him Captain of the Birds as he rescued stranded pilots and appeased hostile nomads who had shot down planes and kidnapped flyers. His time in the desert became powerful fuel for his writing and the raw inspiration for The Little Prince. But the skies remained his greatest love. Sís traces the trajectory of Saint-Exupéry’s travels and passions:
Eager to explore other skies, Antoine joined his fellow aviators in creating new mail routes in South America. Nothing could stop them as they crossed glaciers, rain forests, and mountain peaks, battling fierce winds and wild storms.
Antoine spent more time in the air here than anywhere else because the pilots now also flew at night. With stars above and lights below, his world felt both immense and small.
Upon returning to France, Saint-Exupéry fell in love, got married, and reached significant fame as both a pilot and an author. But driven by his chronic adventurer’s restlessness, he continued to dream up expeditions that came to border on stunts. In one, he competed for a prize for the fastest flight between Paris and Saigon, but he and his copilot crashed in North Africa, surviving by a hair and wandering the desert for days before being rescued. In another, he set out to become the first French pilot to fly from New York to the tip of South America. The plane crashed near Guatemala City but, miraculously, he survived once more.
As World War II engulfed Europe, Saint-Exupéry was called for military duty once more, this time as a pilot, observing from high in the skies the atrocities the Germans inflicted all over. Once his war service ended, he decided he couldn’t continue to live in France under German occupation and fled to Portugal on a ship — a trip that would stir the very foundations of his soul and inspire his magnificent Letter to a Hostage — eventually ending up in New York, where he found himself lonesome and alienated.
After writing Flight to Arras and sending a copy to President Roosevelt with the inscription “For President Franklin Roosevelt, whose country is taking on the heavy burden of saving the world,”Saint-Exupéry bought a set of watercolor paints and began working on the illustrations for the story that would become The Little Prince. Sís captures the layered message of the book, informed both by Saint-Exupéry’s passions and his forlorn homesickness, with beautiful simplicity:
He described a planet more innocent than his own, with a boy who ventured far from home, questioned how things worked, and searched for answers.
But the author grew increasingly restless once more. Longing to fly again and to see his family, who had remained in France, he rejoined his old squadron in North Africa, requesting flights that would take him back to France. Sís captures the tragic bluntness of how Saint-Exupéry’s story ended, at once almost sterile in its abruptness and richly poetic in the context of his lifelong obsession:
On July 31, 1944, at 8:45am, he took off from Borgo, Corsica, to photograph enemy positions east of Lyon. It was a beautiful day. He was due back at 12:30.
But he never returned. Some say he forgot his oxygen mask and vanished at sea.
Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.
The Pilot and the Little Prince is a thing of beauty for both eye and spirit, and a fine addition to other delightful graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. Complement it with Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince and his soul-stretching meditations on solitude and the meaning of life and our shared humanity.
Illustrations courtesy of Macmillan
Published May 27, 2014