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A Feathered Gathering: All the birds of the world gather to hear the hoopoe bird speak in author and illustrator Peter Sis' The Conference of the Birds. Sis painstakingly painted thousands of birds by hand in to bring his new book to life. Click Here For A Closer Look (Courtesy of Penguin Press)

In 'Birds,' Sis Makes A Dream World For Grown-Ups

Nov 16, 2011 (All Things Considered)

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 Safavid painter Habiballah shows the birds of the world gathered around the hoopoe bird in his 16th century illustration of 12th century poet Farid al-Din Attar's The Conference Of The Birds. Peter Sis has also written The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin, Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei and The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain.

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Twelfth century Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar's epic poem The Conference of the Birds is now adapted in a gorgeously illustrated book by Peter Sis. A MacArthur fellow and Caldecott award winner, Sis is known for his many children's books, where a boy might be transformed into a firetruck or a New York City neighborhood becomes a fantastical playground.

The Conference of the Birds is Sis's first book for adults. It's the story of thousands of birds who fly off on a perilous journey over mountains and oceans and deserts in search of a king.

Sis grew up behind the Iron Curtain in then-Communist Czechoslovakia, and his origins have proved a powerful creative wellspring. As he tells NPR's Melissa Block, "The really connecting thing in all my books is the fact that somebody's dreaming about places or searching for someplace, going places. I think if I wouldn't have left Prague my books would be different. And I think everything I did in my books in this country comes from the sentiment of leaving another place [and] coming to a new place."

In Sis' new book, the journey begins when the hoopoe bird addresses his cohorts, saying,

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.

Of course, it turns out the quest is in vain. 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.

"Everybody [wants] some person who will solve all the problems," Sis says. "And then in the end you find out that you have to resolve [them] for yourself."

If this book is assuredly more serious and adult than Sis's previous work, The Conference of Birds is nevertheless full of his signature touches: the pen and ink drawings; tiny detailed dots suffused by a wash of color.

It's a technique that proved particularly challenging here. The book boasts a cast of thousands, and manually reproducing the fantastical flock, page after page, proved tedious and tiring. Sis wonders if he had been perhaps "overambitious" or if he would have been better served using a computer program.

But ultimately, he says, his "little brush" was all he needed. "It can be physically painful but then when you see the beautiful picture in the end ... you know it's special what you have done."

If the challenges were technical, the catalyst — and the rewards — were profoundly emotional.

"It was like going back to my history and my nation because I had all this space to play with. This book was never limited to a number of pages," he says. "I was going so long that my wife at one point said, 'We better get it out of the house.' Birds everywhere."

And why birds? Again the answer can be found in the past. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain with travel severely restricted, Sis became fascinated by these creatures who could roam so insouciantly.

"The birds never needed passports. ... We always thought, the birds can go wherever they want, and we couldn't really," Sis says. "The birds were very much the symbol of ... free movement for me."

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