The Brilliance of Words (and Non-Fiction Picture Books) by Michelle Webb Fandrich
I love all kinds of picture books, I really do, but I have a special place in my heart for the non-fiction ones. And I feel like this may be the Golden Age of the non-fiction picture book – lucky me! Non-fiction picture books have moved beyond a ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach to parlay all that is amazing about the form – words serving pictures, pictures serving words – into voice-y, clever works that demand the attention of their audiences (young and old).
The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse, written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper, is a simply beautiful example of this.
The book, in its entirety, is a question – really two questions. This is the best way to begin a conversation about art, in my opinion. It asks you, the reader, to place yourself in the shoes of a boy. Not just any boy, but a boy who lived in a dreary gray town in Northern France, a boy whose mother brought light and color into his world through painted plates and woven rugs, a boy whose father gave him pigeons whose feathers changed color in the light.
It asks you to ponder if it’s any surprise that a boy fed on light, and color, and form, and movement could become anything but a great artist.
The text serves as a lyrical invitation into the world of the artist. And the pictures which accompany it lay that world out before the reader. In her afterword, Hadley Hooper reveals how immersed she became in the work of Matisse during the making of this book. How she studied the body of Matisse’s work. She studied his use of line, color, form. She studied the techniques he used throughout his career – from his early work with painting through his later work, when he was bed-ridden and worked solely with paper and scissors. But honestly, you need only look at the images to see this influence. From the technique she chose (relief printing which required the use of simple shapes) to the color palette, the effect of Matisse’s influence on the illustrator for this project are wholly apparent. And that adds a depth to this work that would be lacking were it created in any other form than the picture book.
To open The Iridescence of Birds is to reveal the world as seen through the eyes of a great artist. For the youngest of children and those who read to them, the lyrical prose is soothing without being overly simple. Older children will move beyond the beauty of the words to engage in the world of the artist on their own terms. The book is a question and a calling, to find the inspiration in everyday objects and to discover those moments that will define and shape the artist’s work. It is an invocation to all of us to see the world with new eyes.
Michelle Webb Fandrich is a fashion and art historian. She spent many years getting lost in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where she worked in the Costume Institute) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where she worked in the department of Costume and Textiles). These days, she spends her time getting lost while reading picture books with her son. She also spends time writing a few of her own. She blogs about writing and life at emmefandrich.com and you can also find her on twitter as @emmefandy.