Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sís' books keep delighting readers of whatever age

Originally printed Nov. 14, 2011.

"The Conference of the Birds" is being touted as the first book for adults published by Caldecott Honor-winning children's book author and illustrator Peter Sís. But the book — a lavishly illustrated retelling of a 12th-century Persian poem — offers the same mix of rich images and simply stated but profound words that has made Sís's previous work so enjoyable and so re-readable to children and adults alike.

The career of this 62-year-old, Czechoslovakian born author and filmmaker, in fact, demonstrates the truth of C.S. Lewis's half-century-old observation: "No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of 50. ... The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all."

While largely marketed to children, Sís's books already have focused on a number of more mature and complex themes. He won the American Library Association's Caldecott Honor in 1996 for the illustrations in his "Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei," in 1998 for his "Tibet through the Red Box" and in 2007 for his very politically and historically aware "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain." And his "Madlenka," "Madlenka's Dog" and "The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin" were all named New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Books of the Year.

Booksellers must find it very difficult to decide whether to shelve Sís's work among the children's picture books, with the graphic novels or alongside the art collections.

Although marketed for adults, "The Conference of the Birds" will prove equally difficult to pigeon-hole. The 850-year-old Sufi epic poem that serves as the inspiration for the book tells the story of thousands of birds who, responding to the call of a human poet turned hoopoe, gather to begin a quest to find their true king, Simorgh.

Their long journey takes them to the mountain of Kaf, where Simorgh lives, but along the way they discover that the true king is each of them as well as all of them.

Although children might get lost in the lyricism of the poem — and some adults might reject the poem's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"-like message of self-actualization — readers of all ages will be amazed by the level of detail in Sís's illustrations. Not only does Sís depict dozens and dozens of species of birds, but nearly every page in this book is worthy of being framed and displayed.

Heller McAlpin of NPR goes as far as to describe "The Conference of the Birds" as Exhibit A for anyone looking "to make a case ... for what print books can do that e-books can't."

Sís — who was named a MacArthur "genius" fellow in 2003 — will read from his newest book at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

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