There is a famous quote, attributed to C. S. Lewis, that I am frequently encountering: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” I love that this quote exists and I enjoy so many people befriending it, but I don’t often see people taking it seriously when it comes to picture books. There are gobs of picture books pummeling the market regularly and as I frequently hint about, I don’t think they all deserve to be there. I do admit that some picture books are great even though they are perfectly geared only for a tiny child. I can appreciate them for what they are intended. But I deeply treasure the books that I can share that are wholly personal to the creator and speak on all kinds of levels to people of different ages.
Today I offer a look at one of those pieces of beautiful art. A French poem translated and illustrated in a way that ponders creativity, art, waiting, and wonder. It is a book that requests and deserves many reads and I feel the reader always leaves with a new discovery. Allow me to show you How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird by Jacques Prévert, illustrated and translated by Mordicai Gerstein, 2007.
Gerstein actually begins the illustrations several pages before the title page appears, an act I don’t often see. It is a lovely set up. A boy asleep is awakened by a bird appearing on a sill. And then the lesson, and the text, begins.
Prévert’s words describe beginning by painting a cage with an open door, adding some inviting elements, carrying the canvas to an outside location, and then waiting….
If the bird finally does come, you must use the brush to gently close the door of the cage.
And then elatedly, erase the cage one piece at a time, and begin to paint a portrait of the tree with a perfect perch for the special bird. You must fill the painting with all the lovely things of a summer landscape and hope that the bird will sing. For that is a sign worth signing your name to the portrait of your bird.
This is one of those books that just takes my breath, and my imagination, away. I love illustrated poems in picture book form. I’ve always enjoyed poetry, but I have a tendency to read a poem through quickly unless it is broken up for me. Gerstein’s page turns are perfectly timed. Each page contains a frame around the illustration, most of them square; but even this artistic element speaks more emotion into the images as the frames change shape, are interrupted by something, or even disappear for a page. Mordicai Gerstein is a tremendous artist who adds layers upon layers of depth to a story, while keeping his art relatively simple and paired down.
The jacket description of this book describes Gerstein’s setting of Jacques Prévert’s poem to be magical, and I wholeheartedly agree. Most times when I encounter these pages I find myself intensely philosophizing about the meaning and my interpretations. Other times, I simply want to be lost in the process along with the boy and hope, and wait, and rejoice along with him. True art should be felt and shared, I believe. And signed of course.