With wit and grit, travelogues capture cities' playful sides

By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2011

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When I was in elementary school, trips to the library quickly morphed into global adventures whenever I flipped through the pages of Miroslav Sasek’s “This Is’’ series of children’s books. The Czech author and illustrator’s 18 enchanting travelogues, published between 1959 and 1974, featured destinations from Texas to Edinburgh to Israel. So I was excited to learn that Rizzoli has reissued most of the books for a new generation to discover.

The stylish books by the author known as M. Sasek depict familiar landmarks, but it is his playful ink-and-gouache illustrations of quirky street life — from cats dozing in Parisian storefronts to colorful laundry drying on bamboo poles over the streets of Hong Kong — that can enrapture young readers. Witty verses match the whimsy of the illustrations. Alongside drawings of a fire alarm box and a union picket line, Sasek writes, “In New York fire strikes frequently — and so do people.’’

Sasek, who died in 1980 at 63, demonstrated a keen kid’s-eye view of the world. He understood that the seemingly mundane, such as street vendors and rooftop water tanks, captivate youngsters. His travelogues are not always Chamber of Commerce material — “This Is San Francisco’’ includes a drawing of the San Quentin prison — but the gritty realism is alluring.

While some facts in the reissued editions have been updated, the essence of the originals remains. An illustration of Times Square with billboards for TWA and Camel cigarettes, complete with a chain-smoker blowing smoke rings over automobiles with tail fins, seems straight out of “Mad Men.’’

I have been stockpiling the new releases hoping they inspire my children to travel the world. For me, revisiting these classics has been a sentimental journey.