Book Review: How To Paint The Portrait Of A Bird By Prévert & Gerstein

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.

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.

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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.

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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….

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If the bird finally does come, you must use the brush to gently close the door of the cage.

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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.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: How To Paint The Portrait Of A Bird By Prévert & Gerstein

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