Pros:illustrations of astonishing detail, astounding beauty
Cons:reduces 4500-line epic poem to a few hundred lines
The Bottom Line: Simply put, Peter Sís’ version of The Conference of the Birds is the best argument I’ve seen yet against buying a book in electronic form…
Look at the troubles happening in our world!
Anarchy – discontent – upheaval!
Desperate fights over territory, water, and food!
Poisoned air! Unhappiness!
I fear we are lost. We must do something!
Though the words might sound like a campaign commercial¹, they’re not. Instead, they appear early in The Conference of the Birds, based on an epic poem by the twelfth-century Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar (as translated by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi). This is not the first retelling of that tale: there is even a stage play. However, this is the first version constructed around the illustrations of renowned artist Peter Sís – and it is a wonder to behold.
The poem: The hoopoe bird called a conference of the world’s birds to address current problems. He told the birds he knew of a king, Simorgh, who could unite them. He persuaded them to follow him to the distant mountain of Kaf in search of this king. The birds followed him across deserts and oceans, and across seven valleys: Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death. Kaf lay on the far side, veiled by clouds.
With each new valley, more birds turned back or died, until at last just thirty birds followed the hoopoe up to the mountain of Kaf:
At the end, thirty birds, unified by their quest, reach their king at last
and they see that they are Simorgh the king…
and that Simorgh the king is each of them…
and all of them.
Hmmm… so, more than 800 years ago, a Persian poet was writing allegorically about a journey of self-discovery. Sort of puts modern self-help mavens in perspective, no? Note, by the way, that this version is greatly shortened from the original, since Sís uses his art to tell much of the tale.
The illustrations: Peter Sís, already a three-time Caldecott Medal winner, brings astonishing detail to the pages of The Conference of Birds. To begin with, this 160-page volume is printed on textured paper that adds tactile nuance to the visual wonder of the images. Sís is well-known for the many-layered detail of his pen-and-ink drawings, which have graced the pages of Jack Prelutsky’s The Dragons are Singing Tonight (reviewed by the household 5th-grader) and Monday’s Troll, along with many others. The Conference of the Birds showcases the power of his stunning visuals.
Each image is drawn and colored entirely by hand, which in some instances can only be described as a daunting task. The first illustration of the full conference is a monochrome drawing of the hoopoe in a clearing amid thousands upon thousands of birds. Those in the foreground have beaks, eyes, wings; while those in the distance are mere “blobs.” In the second illustration, Sís has added color to every bird. Each illustration – and every page is illustrated – is a study in detail; tens of thousands of pen strokes in most. Although the fine, crinkly texture of the pages comes from the paper, at the first touch my fingertips were convinced that it results from the detail of the drawings.
The majority of the illustrations span two pages. Each of the seven valleys is shown twice: empty first, then with the column of birds winding through its landscape. The flock thins with each new illustration, the thousands of birds finally diminishing to just thirty. Sís also liberally includes another of his trademarks; intricate, mandala-like circular (or near-circular) designs – one for each of the valleys and several more.
Sís shortens the original 4500-line poem to a few hundred lines, which may disappoint scholars and those already familiar with the original. However, his wondrous illustrations make this a volume that is accessible to young and old, poet and peasant alike. Though philosophically deep, the text is simple enough for children, though readers of any age will be entranced by the illustrations.
¹ The reference to “poisoned air” makes it unlikely to be for any of the current crop of candidates…
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