Brain Pickings

The Conference of Birds: Beautifully Illustrated Story of Belonging Based on an Ancient Sufi Poem

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What a hopeful hoopoe bird has to do with the deepest truths of the human condition.

As a lover of children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups and of obscure children’s books by famous authors of adult literature, I find it a rare delight to stumble upon an inversion of sorts — poetic books for grown-ups by beloved authors of children’s literature. Such is the case of The Conference of the Birds (public library) by the celebrated and prolific Czech-born children’s writer and illustrator Peter Sís — a lyrical, heartwarming adaptation of the classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem of the same title. The story unfolds in a landscape reminiscent of the sentimental cartography world: Thirty birds, led by the hoopoe, set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh.

At its heart, it’s a story about belonging and homecoming to the deepest of inner certitude as the avian heroes, drawn from all species, perish and persevere on their momentous quest, only to find at the end that Simorgh is, in fact, each of them and all of them — a beautiful allegory of a beautiful human truth to which Sís’s soft yet evocative illustrations add delicate dimension.

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’wve 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.

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