“Love loves difficult things”:
Peter Sís’ The Conference of the Birds

h1 November 22nd, 2011 by jules

(Click to enlarge)

If you’re a regular reader here at 7-Imp, you’re most likely a devoted follower of children’s picture books and contemporary illustration. This also means you likely know the work of author/illustrator Peter Sís — and probably know it well. Today, I feature his first book aimed at adult readers. (You’ll see in the below video that Sís sees it as a book for all ages, though—as he put it—the market determined it was for adults.) Fans of Sís may not be surprised to read it’s a feast for one’s eyes, elegantly illustrated and lovingly rendered.

And it’s bold. And that’s because in this October release from Penguin Press, The Conference of the Birds, Sís takes an ancient Persian poem, approximately 4,500 lines long, and extracts its very essence—in this beautifully-designed book (o! the very paper it’s printed on!) with Sís’ signature illustrations, geometrically beguiling and full of symbolism—in a manner that is accessible for modern readers. (Note the timeliness of the “upheaval” spread below.)

The poem, written by Persian Farid Ud-Din Attar in 1177 (Sís notes he was first inspired by this 1984 translation from Dick Davis), tells the story of a gathering of the birds of the world, who have no king and who set out on a quest—as suggested by the hoopoe, the wisest of them all—to find the legendary Simorgh. The Simorgh, the hoopoe tells the birds, will have all the answers. Warning the birds about the journey’s challenges (“Love loves difficult things”), the hoopoe leads them across seven valleys—Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death. When they finally reach the Simorgh, they discover that “Simorgh the king was them.” Or, as noted in this excellent NPR piece, the “only authority the birds need lies within them. It’s this impulse to seek out a savior — and its futility — that give the birds’ mission its universality and particular poignancy.”

Sís, pictured above, re-tells the story of this epic set of poems with a compelling economy and lavish illustrations. The NPR link also includes, for fellow illustration junkies, thoughts from Sís on the challenges of depicting huge flocks of birds. He also addresses the “profoundly emotional” symbolism of birds for him; in the book’s closing he also notes,

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to draw pictures of flying—freedom—and birds. All kinds of birds: human-face birds, fish birds, snake birds. I used them in my animated films, posters, record covers, and illustrations…

It is a wonder to see Sís’ colors explode in the book’s final spreads. I don’t have those to show you today, but I do have some opening spreads, since the art says more than I ever could. I also close with an interview a friend conducted—Kate Pritchard, Associate Editor at BookPage—with Peter from BEA 2011, in which he discusses this book (as well as the tantalizing notion of chick-lit, Sís-style).


“Part I: In which all the birds of the world get together for a conference
and are addressed by the hoopoe bird.”

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

“Birds! 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! I’ve seen the world. I know many secrets. Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers. We must go and find him.”
(Click to enlarge)

“How do we know this king exists?”
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“There’s proof he exists. Look! Here’s a drawing of one of his feathers. It fell to the ground in China in the middle of the night. Word got out immediately.”
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“This king is real! He is as close to us as we are far from him. His name is Simorgh and he lives on the mountain of Kaf. Let us go and find him.”
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* * * * * * *

THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS. © 2011 by Peter Sís. Published by The Penguin Press, New York. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher. Photo of Sís reproduced by permission of TLC Book Tours.

16 comments to ““Love loves difficult things”:
Peter Sís’ The Conference of the Birds

  1. So I just put down the newspaper with headlines about the super committee’s failure to find a compromise and come to read about this marvelous conference of birds and I can’t help but wish that the human conference had as much wisdom as the birds.

  2. Lindsey, ah yes. Excellent point.

  3. Funnily enough — or not — the premise put me in mind of OWS. Politics in the air. 🙂

    This looks like a beautiful, beautiful book. Thanks so much as always Jules for the lavish attention and space you provide to the artwork!

  4. P.S. Hoopoes have a long history with humans. Who knew???

  5. Stunning post. Thanks.

  6. this is a really gorgeous book with impressive production values, especially considering it’s from a major trade publisher and not a small press. Our bookstore just chose it for our signed first editions club and I’m looking forward to meeting Mr. Sis in a couple of weeks!

  7. Must get my hands on this one.

  8. Wow! This looks absoultely amazing. And I find it so interesting that Sis finds this to be a book for all ages but that the market demands it be an adult read. If only we gave our children the credit they deserved… I will certainly be sharing this book with my girls and I’m quite sure they will rise to the occassion!

  9. I’m so glad you included a few of the images, though I’m sure they don’t do justice to the actual illustrations in the printed book!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  10. I’m captivated by the first image you featured. I would love to have that hanging on my wall.

  11. Ooh… this goes to the top of the wish list!

  12. I heard about this book on NPR — had to have it. This morning I armed myself with a cup of herbal tea and sat to read the book. The illustrations are wonderful; the text inspiring. But the thing that surprised me was the texture of the paper. I couldn’t help running my fingers over the pages again and again. I will definitely share this with my grandchildren asap!

  13. Sandra, YES. If only all books were made this way … well, of course, it’s not necessary for *all* books, but you know what I mean. Wish we saw it more often, I suppose is what I mean. Such a nice touch!

  14. I am a huge fan of Peter Sis – I was crushed to note that we still did not have this in our libraries here in Singapore, would definitely recommend this one.

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