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Posts Tagged ‘Patricia MacLachlan

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?

PatriciaMacLachlanAuthor of children’s picture books and novels for middle-grade readers, Patricia MacLachlan, frequently focuses her stories on the family. One of her most beloved tales, Sarah, Plain and Tall, focuses on a mail-order bride who profoundly influences two motherless pioneer children. With the exception of Tomorrow’s Wizard, a collection of fantastic tales, MacLachlan’s books have also been solidly grounded in realism. MacLachlan has also undertaken collaborations with her daughter. A recent picture biography offering from MacLachlan, The Iridescence of Birds, appeared on several 2014 Best of Children’s Book lists. It’s also my review book for tomorrow. Save the date: February 4!


Born in Wyoming, Patricia MacLachlan grew up feeling a strong connection to the wide-open prairie. “I carry around a little bag of prairie dirt with me, like a part of my past,” she tells Houghton-Mifflin. This love comes through strongly in her books such as the Sarah, Plain and Tall trilogy.

An only child, Patricia MacLachlan’s lack of siblings was offset by a strong relationship with her parents and an active imagination. Her parents were teachers and they encouraged her to read. In fact, reports Biography, her mother urged her to “read a book and find out who you are”. This is a line that MacLachlan repeats in Word After Word After Word, except she relates it to writing. Maclachlan read voraciously, sometimes discussing and acting out scenes in books with her parents. As she did so, she also at times reworked the plot.

During her childhood, reveals Biography, MacLachlan also found company in an imaginary friend. “who was real enough for me to insist that my parents set a place for her at the table.” One of her early memories is of her father, negotiating with Mary for the couch after dinner.

Despite her love of stories, MacLachlan didn’t write them as a child. She recalls for Biography a particular school assignment where she wrote a story on a three by five card: “My cats have names and seem happy. Often they play. The end.” Her teacher wasn’t impressed. This discouraged Maclachlan who wrote in her in my diary: “I shall try not to be a writer.” MacLachlan grew up being afraid of putting her own feelings and thoughts on paper.

Years later, as an adult of thirty-five, MacLachlan found the courage to write. Married with children of her own, she kept busy by working with foster mothers at a family services agency and spending time with her family. As her children grew older, she tells Biography that she felt a need to go to graduate school or to teach or something. “It dawned on me that what I really wanted to do was to write.” It helped that she now lived where there were many writers. Also, she took a course being taught by Jane Yolen on writing for children. According to Mackin, that was the beginning of MacLachlin’s writing career.


Although she found it scary being in the role of student again, trying to learn something entirely new, MacLachlan took a chance. She started her successful writing career by creating picture books. Her first, The Sick Day, details how a little girl with a cold is cared for by her father. Biography states that MacLachlan received praised for the simplicity and sensitivity she brought to her stories, especially her deft handling of unconventional subject matter. Encouraged by her editor, MacLachlan also started to write novels intended for a slightly older audience than her picture books.

When asked how she gets her ideas for writing, MacLachlan tells Houghton-Mifflin, “I do not think up topics. They tap me on the shoulder.” Characters, in particular, tap her quite often, and she begins to have conversations with them. “We talk in the car, we talk in the bathtub or in the shower. We talk sometimes when I’m in bed at night and the lights are off and I’m thinking.” From these dialogues with her characters, a story begins to take shape.

MacLachlan also often gleans elements of her stories from personal experience. Her first picture book, The Sick Day, recounts experiences that could happen in almost any family. As for Sarah, Plain and Tall, her mother told her about the real Sarah. She was a distant relative, who came from the coast of Maine to the prairie to become a wife and mother to a close family member. Shortly before two of her children were to leave for college, MacLachlan’s parents took the family on a trip to the prairie where both her parents  and MacLachlan were born.

As for The Iridescence of Birds, MacLachlan wrote it to answer the question of: Why do artists paint what they do? Surprisingly, she also describes it to Mackin as a book that no publisher wanted. Apparently, when attending a writing conference, she talked with an editor whom she liked. He told her that his session had been about what he buys and why he buys it. Then he asked about her topic. MacLachlan shared that she had read her stuff that didn’t work and wouldn’t sell. He asked what she meant, she told him about The Iridescence of Birds, and…. she found a publisher.

I think the children often think they don’t have very exciting lives that are worth writing about. I just tell them that that’s what we write about—we make them more interesting by writing about them. We change our lives in our books in a way, and that’s the most exciting thing about writing about your own life. Kids get very excited when they hear that because they can change their own lives in their stories.

–Patricia MacLachlan, Biography

Over the weekend, I received the unexpected present from a friend of Word After Word After Word by Patricia MacLachlan. My friend said the book looked like it belonged to me. In that the book is about writing, stories, and how words can change lives, I’d have to agree with her. 🙂

Every day feels the same for fourth-graders in Miss Cash’s writing class. Then along comes a visiting author who encourages students to see their lives in terms of words. First, there is Evie, whose parents have been separated ever since her return from summer camp. For her, words translate into a character named Sassy who is lonely like Evie’s father. In contrast, May feels that she needs to make up disasters, violence, or alienation, in order to have words to write. Then one day, her parents give her a real-life story in the form a decision to adopt a baby. Except this real-life event doesn’t make May happy either! Next, there’s Russell, who still grieves the loss of his dog. For him, words translate into a poignant poem. Finally, there’s the narrator, whose name is Lucy. Despite the fact her mom has cancer, Lucy feels like May that nothing interesting happens to her. For her, all writing revolves around sadness, a fact that she wishes to change.

As for the visiting author, in some ways, Ms. Mirabel is a unique character. Her hair is unruly. She daily wears a new outfit. At times, she provides instruction that goes against that of the classroom teacher. Otherwise, her life can be viewed as similar to that of the students whom she wishes to inspire. Like them, Ms. Mirabel even has a sibling with whom she doesn’t get along. On the first few days of her visit, Ms. Mirabel answers questions about writing and shares samples of published stories. About the latter, she makes clear that there will be well-liked stories and maybe some less-liked stories. Not all writings have to be enjoyed. She simply hopes that some will speak to them. And when they find a story, they will write it word after word after word. After that little speech, Ms. Mirabel invites the class to bring their own writings to share.

About the only quibble I have with this lovely little tale is Ms. Mirabel’s attitude towards outlines. She says they are silly. “Once you write the outline, there’s no reason to write the story. You write to participate…” I believe that one can participate and find out what happens in a story through an outline too. When asked why authors write, Ms. Mirabel recognizes that there are all kinds of reasons, from it being a way to change one’s life to even just make money. I think she should have also recognized that authors all have their own unique ways to write. Of course, writers aren’t perfect, and so here’s where Miss Cash can balance the perspective.

In the Author’s Note, Patricia MacLachlan notes that she had been asked to write a book about writing and her life as an author. As she sat down to write such a book, MacLachlan realized that she didn’t want to go over the same stories of her life. Instead she decided to tackle the topic through fiction. An excellent decision!

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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