The pages in Peter Sis' new illustrated book aren't numbered, so I counted them. I didn't really need an accurate figure -- the counting was just an excuse to leaf through the book's textured pages, which feel something like silken cheesecloth fingerprints. And I mean that in the best possible way.
At 146 pages (OK -- so I used the figure after all), The Conference of the Birds is lengthier than any of Sis' other titles. The celebrated children's book author, who's speaking at The Booksmith this Sunday, is usually constrained to page limits determined by a book's target age group. He's won Caldecott Honors for his children's books, including The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain and Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, and he's a six-time winner of The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year.
When Sis decided to make his first book for adults, he encountered no cap on page number, which he admits made The Conference of the Birds difficult to finish. "I would just paint and paint and paint," he said. He didn't change his working process much, which makes sense, because children's books are already partly designed to please the adult who's obliged to read the book at bedtime again -- and again -- and again. If I have kids, I'll be employing reverse psychology each night to covertly encourage a Conference of the Birds habit.
In its pages, graceful, questing birds are swept into spirals and sorted into grids. They catapult through terrain punctuated by embedded labyrinths. They're pieced together into monochromatic Rorschach patterns. As Sis' birds migrate, the illustrations travel along in a hypnotic rhythm of threes -- a long view of surrealist mountain topography, the flock's sinuous passage through new landscape, and desaturated diagrams of amorphous shapes where time goes missing. The rich color, flowing pattern and Sis' trademark laborious line work are mesmerizing.
Sis, who grew up in Cold War-era Prague and immigrated to the United States in 1984, has been drawing birds as symbols of freedom since he was illustrating album covers in his early days in the U.S. He first illustrated the winged creature Simorgh -- who appears in The Conference of the Birds -- for Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings.
So illustrating a great feathery migration was a natural continuation of Sis' early work. An adaptation of a 12th century epic Persian poem, The Conference of the Birds features a visionary poet-turned-bird who leads a congregation of his disillusioned peers to find King Simorgh, a liberator expected to rescue the birds from their despair. As the often-skeptical birds migrate, they pass through seven expansive valleys, each with its own majestic, ambiguous character.
While hardships abound in the valleys, the obstacles aren't indisputably evil. Yes, the birds emerge battered, but their journey was complex. Some of their experiences held ambiguous meaning. In the Valley of Detachment, the birds learn that "a tiny fish is mightier than a whale and nobody can say why." By emphasizing the variable nature of the birds' journey, Sis builds a story relevant to the ambiguity of our own changeable lives.
The Conference of the Birds is constructed in a format many mature urban adults might think they've outgrown. There's more image than text, and lots of earnest metaphor for shared human experience. Sometimes a culture of skepticism encourages us to interpret sincerity as tired and unpalatable. I'm certainly guilty of this automatic response at times -- and sometimes it's warranted. But there's none of that here. This is powerful, heartfelt stuff.
Go ahead and get lost following the birds. It's easy to do -- the book has no page numbers.
Illustrator Peter Sis will speak about his new book, The Conference of the Birds, at The Booksmith on Sunday, November 20, 2011 at 4pm. For more information, visit http://www.booksmith.com