The The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan wasn’t what I expected. From the title, I assumed it would be about birds. When I discovered that it was about an artist, I prepared myself instead to read a straightforward biography. Again, MacLachlan surprised me, for her picture book is anything but ordinary. The text is poetic and the illustrations echo Henri Matisse’s own evolving palette.
This dreamy picture book is proof that adults can learn new things. For example, with much apologies to those of my readers who are artists, I knew nothing before about Henri Matisse. Now I know that he lived in France. His mother painted plates and brought red rungs to hang on the walls. She let Matisse mix paint colors, as well as arrange fruits and flowers brought from market. Moreover, the family raised pigeons. The title refers to the fact that as a boy, Matisse watched the movements of these pigeons. He observed their colors that changed with the light as they moved, a concept that his mother informed him meant iridescence. Incidentally, despite my college-level vocabulary, this is a new word for me. Certainly, a selling point for me about The Iridescence of Birds is how much I learned, without really realizing it. That’s always the best way!
Next, I’d like to talk about MacLachlan’s style. It’s a little unorthodox, in that MacLachlan tells her whole story in one long sentence. It’s also speculative in nature, being worded as a book-length query. Yet it works. Each phrase leads to the next, with the final one ending with a question mark. It makes for a quiet and somewhat meandering book that perfectly captures an idyllic childhood. According to MacLachlan, she had experienced a difficult time trying to find a publisher for The Iridescence of Birds. Until one unique editor took on the project, MacLachlan had categorized The Iridescence of Birds has a story that didn’t work and wouldn’t sell. Would the book have worked just as well if it had been punctuated in a conventional manner? Would the book have worked just as well if it had included more exhaustive facts? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that at the end, I felt inspired to both know more about Matisse and to paint. That’s makes it a win for this reviewer!
If I were to criticize anything, it would be the illustrations. Some critics note that the artwork becomes bolder and brighter as the story unfolds. While I’ll admit there is a progression, the pages remain a little too quiet and flat in their feel for me, especially given that I’m reading about an artist. At the same time, I have to accept that I might also just be ignorant here. According to other reviews, the artwork includes Matisse’s own images. The illustrator for The Iridescence of Birds herself explains in the back pages that she spent months looking at reproductions of his work. She apparently choose to try relief painting, because it forced her to simplify her shapes and to focus on the colors. At any rate, I did like all the varieties of colors, especially those associated with the pigeons. Also, I was particularly taken by the pages that showed both the boy and the adult Matisse.
The Iridescence of Birds might not have been what I expected, but it was a pleasure to read. Should it inspire you to want to know more about Henri Matisse, there is a short bio at the end. In it, I learned that Matisse always loved birds, so it seems fitting for me to learn about him. There is also a list of fuller-length biographies about Matisse.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?