The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse

maclachlan_iridescence of birdsWaaay back in January 2014, I saw this book. Hadley Hooper’s art blew me away. It still does. (And here Joanna Rudge Long reviews it for The Horn Book.)

Henri Matisse is presented as a youngster, growing up in a dreary gray town. His mother introduces color to his life as she paints plates, arranges fruit and flowers, hangs locally made rugs on the walls, and allows her little boy to raise pigeons, with their iridescent colors.

The text consists solely of two conditional questions (one very, very long), starting with the words, “If you were a boy named Henri Matisse...” (More on that later.)

The star here is the art. My goodness, it is stunning. A combination of relief printmaking and digital art, the art feels homemade and warm and heartfelt as we learn all that went into helping the boy Henri become the artist Henri Matisse. The opening spread is all blue-gray and straight lines. Even young Henri seems to be marching in time through the "dreary town in northern France." But the moment his mother starts painting, Henri’s world begins to come to life. The blank white walls are now dotted with gorgeous painted plates, and Henri revels in the joy of mixing paints for his mother. Color comes into his life and into the town, and each page turn brings new colors and new experiences of that color. Henri is always at the heart of the story, taking it all in. Later in the story, when the grownup artist arrives on the right side of a ladder (and his little boy self is on the left), his art is shown to be a direct result of all his mother introduced him to as a child (plants, fruit, pigeons, light, movement).

It’s all delicious. I love it.

My only little concern is the text. That long, long first conditional sentence is a lot to hold onto for the young reader. My class loved the art and wanted to read more about Matisse. (I had two of the books from MacLachlan’s bibliography in my room.) However, they were a bit confused when they tried to read it themselves or follow the story when I read it. Perhaps it’s for an older audience? Or perhaps some child readers need an adult to tell a bit more? (Which is just fine.) My adult book club friends read this aloud and it was poetic and calming, especially the penultimate wordless spread that leads to "And the iridescence of birds?"

Here is what the Caldecott manual says about text: “Each book is to be considered as a picture book. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.”

I do not think the text is weak at all. I don't even think that the text makes it less effective as a children's picture book. It's just a bit of a challenge for very young readers. That's all. Have any of you read this with children? If so, how old? And how did it work?


But back to the art. The Art. The art is magnificent. And I appreciate that gentle art more each time I look at it.

The end notes from both the author and the illustrator added a lot to my understanding of Matisse's story and how the art for this book was created. I, like my students, wanted to know more — more about this French mill town, more about Matisse's mother, and more about the beautiful word iridescence. When a book makes you want to know more, that's always a very good thing.

Robin Smith
Robin Smith
Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.
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Because I've already talked about the art somewhere or other and of course everybody reads every single word I write somewhere or other--hee hee, aren't I funny--I am only adding here that Hadley Hooper is a woman. A very very talented woman. But yes to everything everybody has said here.

Posted : Jan 16, 2015 01:29

Thom Barthelmess

Wow, Leda, thanks so much! I am both appreciative and mortified.

Posted : Jan 16, 2015 01:29

Thom Barthelmess

I agree, there's so much to admire about the art in this book. I appreciate Hooper's liberal use of gray. Given the subject matter, and MacLachlan's treatment of it, it might have been tempting to saturate the images with exclusively brilliant colors, but the gray in the streets and the pigeons and Henri's herringbone trousers establishes a contextual backdrop, so we get to experience those oranges and reds and blues as the artist might have. I appreciate Hooper's evocation of Matisse's own artwork, which somehow manages to be appropriately iconic and still fit seamlessly with the illustrator's style. That's no small thing. But beyond the achievements of Hooper's execution, the thing I find most impressive here is what he chooses to illustrate. The decision to have little Henri and his grown self meet in the middle, on either side of the ladder, and then occupy the rest of the spreads together strikes me as an unlikely choice. But it's genius, expressing in images the very thing MacLachlan wants us to know about Matisse, which she articulates in her endnote, that "he painted his feelings and he painted his childhood."

Posted : Jan 15, 2015 01:13


It was a great year for picture books, but for me this one stands out. I loved it from the minute I first saw it. I've written about it before, so all I'll add now is that I don't think the long sentence is a problem. Think of Where the Wild Things Are. Here, like there, long sentences cross the page turn, and all it means is that after a breathless reading, there's lots to go back to. And every word counts. Some books are one-joke wonders. One reading, one moment of delight, and it's over. Some lack depth. IRIDESCENCE, as I will fondly call it, holds up to many many readings. There's the richness of those two sentences, the burning desire of the child Matisse, the apparent simplicity of nouns and verbs "Yellow and red, Red and blue, blue and yellow--". How I enjoyed those two pages, which took me back to my childhood favorite, The Color Kittens (a long time ago). Then there's the love, wisdom, and generosity of the mother. The relationship. See? I am going on. It's hard to stop expressing my complete delight in this book. Where does creativity spring from? Who are we? And that gorgeous ending; the perfect last page. Both a surprise and inevitable. Oh, I love it so much. The white space! The progression of color! Textures! Evocation of joy! Help.

Posted : Jan 15, 2015 12:01


This has been my favorite all year, and Leda nails it. It's an exquisite book. I do hope that if the slowly-breathing text is a turn-off during story times (I haven't read it to a group of children) that it won't be a huge issue for the committee. It's such a truly stunning marriage of art and text. Even when I think about the two things separately, I still tend to think in superlatives. The first time I read it, I thought it was one of the most well-crafted picture book texts I've read in a long time. MacLachlan pulls off a LOT here. And the art! You articulate its beauty well here, Robin. Ah. Happy sigh. Superb book.

Posted : Jan 15, 2015 12:01

Tibby Wroten

I agree with you about the first sentence, but I've read it to my three year old and it's one of her favorite books. She asked to buy our own copy when we had to return the library copy. Maybe at that age they're used to being a little confused by language so they can let it go? Occasionally I'll break it up with inflection or an additional word, but even reading it exactly as written she still clicks with it.

Posted : Jan 14, 2015 11:51



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