In June 1939, carrying the diary her father has instructed her to keep and trying not to cry, Vera gets on a train with 75 other children. As they tell one another stories about the lives they’ve left behind and wonder where they’re headed, we open up Sís’ breathtaking center art: A long miniature train winding through a royal-blue sky filled with twinkling constellations unspools the children’s dreams of past and future, and recalls one of Sís’ three Caldecott Honor books, “Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei.”
“My books are mostly about leaving home,” Sís once said in an interview. “Everyone leaves home one way or another. I am unique in my field because I was born in Czechoslovakia, which doesn’t exist anymore.”
Upon her return to her country when the war is over, Vera finds only her aunt and a daughter of one of her cats, who had been adopted by a neighbor. The rest of her family has died. Four years later, she travels back to England, marries and raises three children. “Her book, ‘Pearls of Childhood’ — based on her diaries — and the many interviews she has given,” Sís writes in his author’s note, “are the inspiration for the story told in these pages.”
Vera was on the seventh of eight trains to transport “Winton’s children” from Prague to London, along with her older sister, Eva, though she’s not included in Sís’ story. (A ninth train carrying another 250 children, including Vera’s cousins, was to depart on Sept. 1 but did not leave the station. Germany had invaded Poland and the borders were closed. Only two of the children on that final train are believed to have survived the war.)
The children Winton saved settled all over the globe, and had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (6,000 descendants had already been identified by the time he died in 2015 at 106). Many became “celebrated adventurers, explorers, inventors and dreamers,” like the subjects of Sís’ earlier books (Darwin, Columbus, Galileo, Saint-Exupéry). Perhaps some others became “quiet heroes.” We could use a few more of those.
Jennifer Krauss is the children’s books editor of the Book Review.