MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. A 12th century epic poem from Persia, "The Conference of the Birds," is now adapted in a gorgeously illustrated book by Peter Sis. Sis is known for his many children's books, where a boy might be transformed into a fire truck or a New York City neighborhood becomes a fantastical playground.
Sis grew up behind the iron curtain in then-communist Czechoslovakia.
PETER SIS: I think 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 that sentiment of leaving another place and coming to the new place.
BLOCK: "The Conference of the Birds" is the first book for adults from Peter Sis. It's the story of thousands of birds who fly off on a perilous journey over mountains and oceans and deserts in search of their king, only to find, in the end, that the king is them.
SIS: I think it's like everybody's trying to find, like, solution. Everybody hears about some person who will solve all the problems. And then, in the end, you find out that you have to sort of resolve it for yourself, that it's a reflection of what's inside of you.
BLOCK: Peter Sis, I wonder if you would read the page where the hoopoe, the leader bird, is telling the conference of birds, all the birds from all over the world, what they must do and why they have to do it.
SIS: I'll try my best. (reading) The hoopoe says, birds, look at the trouble 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.
BLOCK: I want to ask you about this incredible image. This is hoopoe before the birds start out, addressing all of the birds in the world and you see him in the middle of this throng of these incredible birds, some of which are magical and some of which look quite realistic - flamingos and owls and ducks and eagles. And tell me a bit about the technique here because people who know your work will recognize it right away with this tiny, tiny, incredibly detailed dots and filled in with this incredible wash of color.
SIS: Well, thank you. This was taking forever, of course, and with these pictures, which take forever...
BLOCK: It's a lot of birds.
SIS: It's like, is this really necessary? Especially now because people say, oh, wow, you could do it on some computer machine, like, so much faster, especially, like, little kids. Coincidentally, the new wing of Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Islamic wing, just opened and they have an illustration from the 13th century for "The Conference of the Birds."
BLOCK: The original.
SIS: And they have the beautiful painting where the artist put in just, like, I think 10 birds. And the text says, all the birds of the world got together. So either they didn't have too many birds in Persia or it's this wonderful poetic license that he just used a few of them. So I'm so glad that you noticed that it's so many birds, but maybe I should have been smarter about it.
BLOCK: Was one of those sort of smack your head moments, like, why didn't I think of that? Peter Sis, tell me, how did you do this work? What's the technique you're using?
SIS: The technique here is pen and ink and watercolor. And, for me, it was like going back to my history in animation because I had all this space to play with because this book wasn't ever limited in number of pages. Here, I was allowed to go whatever - I was going so long at this book that my wife, at one point, said like, we'd better get it out of the house.
BLOCK: Really? She got a little tired of it.
SIS: Birds everywhere. I was talking to (unintelligible) program some computer how to make thousands of birds, sort of multiply them, but I didn't find anybody who would be able to help me, so I still had to do it with a little brush.
BLOCK: So if I need to draw 5,000 tiny, little birds...
SIS: Yeah. It's getting more and more tedious because now it involves like physical therapy and stuff like that.
BLOCK: Physical therapy? You're saying it's physically painful? These are such minute, careful works that...
SIS: Well, I just want you to feel sorry for me.
BLOCK: Well, I do. I do.
SIS: It is (inaudible). No. It can be physically painful, but then when you see the beautiful picture in the end, you think, oh, this is a beautiful picture. You still have that satisfaction that you know it's special, what you have done.
BLOCK: What is it with you and birds? Are you fascinated by them apart from this story?
SIS: I think, you know, like, thinking about it because I didn't realize I'm fascinated by birds. But I think growing up in the communist country behind the iron curtain, the birds never needed passports. The birds would always, like, fly over the head. And I remember that, like, we always felt like the birds can go wherever they want. We couldn't, really.
So the birds were very much the symbol of something which doesn't have to follow the rules of whatever country. So I think the bird's very symbol of the free movement for me.
BLOCK: Well, Peter Sis, thanks so much for coming in.
SIS: It was a great pleasure. Thank you.
BLOCK: That's author and illustrator, Peter Sis. You can see a series of images from his book, "The Conference of the Birds," at NPR.org.