Peter Sis Tackles the Adult Picture Book in 'Conference of the Birds'

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The MacArthur Fellow and Newberry Medal winner wrote dozens of kid's books with his own children in mind -- but now they've left the nest

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It's a pleasant coincidence that children's artist and author Peter Sis's illustrated new book based on a 12th-century Persion poem, The Conference of the Birds, is published by Penguin Books. This story, "in which all the birds of the world get together for a conference," presupposes that there is no discrimination or bias in the aviary world, so even the flightless penguins can have their say.

The main character -- the poet Attar -- wakes up one morning to find he has been transformed into a Hoopoe bird on a quest for a "true king." He speaks to his avian brethren with words even we humans can understand. "Birds!" he says, "look at the troubles happening in our world! Anarchy -- discontent -- upheaval! Desperate fights over territory, water, and food! Posioned air! Unhappiness! I fear we are lost. We must do something! ... I know of a king who has all the answers. We must go and find him."

What sounds like a typical allegory of dispair, want, and yearning is not your typical illustrated children's book. And Sis is not a typical illustrator.

It is fitting that this is a Persian tale, since Sis' pointillist miniatures evoke the elegance of Persian art and the surrealist wit of an Iron Curtain-weaned Eastern European -- Czech to be precise. The drawings are detailed yet energetic. The style is representational yet mystical. So how did Sis, a 1986 Newberry Medal winner, 2003 MacArthur Fellow, and author of dozens of books for children, embark on this poetic quest, which he has been trying to get published since 2005? "I think this book fits with my other books," he told me. But it is published by Ann Godoff, a respected adult publisher (she also publishes Maira Kalman), who insists on an "adult" format. Even the promotional blurb says this is Sis's "first book for adults."

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Born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1949, Sis made many of his books for his young children, notably Madalenka and Madalenka's Dog for his daughter, but laments, "Our kids are kids no more." His two college-age children "gave me a wonderful ride when I did books about their adventures. I went from Firetruck to try to explain 'life behind the Iron Curtain' to them in The Wall. Now they are leaving the nest -- just like the birds."

Next year marks 30 years since Sis came to America, and since I hired him as an illustrator for the New York Times Book Review. His work, now as then, has European roots, but defies time and place. "I still have an accent," he reminds me with his movie star smile. "But when I return to Prague, I speak the language yet do not know what they are talking about."

He speaks his own language through all of his books. But The Conference of Birds in particular has a distinctly Sis-ian sense of dislocation and an equally typical return to hope, discovered when Simorgh, the king, is finally revealed.

I wonder if this book marks the end of pure children's books and the beginning of a transition to a new approach to adult picture books. "I still dream about doing something simple," he says, "very simple and universal."

Image: Peter Sis.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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