Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 17, 2010

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird by Jacques Prévert illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein

You know how hosts put out chips and dip or bowls of nuts at a party, not just to nibble, but to give people something to talk about? What do you think of this cheese? Want an olive? Etc. Well, it wouldn’t do much for those truly hungry, but putting out some picture books might be just as good for conversation. When I teach children’s literature I often bring picture books I’ve gathered from the library on the front table, books not on the syllabus, and early students often gravitate to them while waiting for class to begin. Knowing this, I brought a few to a creative writing class for adults I taught this fall. How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird was snatched up by two who got rather glowy. 

Mordicai Gerstein, illustrator of many picture books including the Caldecott Medal winning The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, illustrated his translation of a poem about creativity by Jacques Prévert, a French poet and screenwriter.
Here’s some of another translation.

First paint a cage
with an open door
then paint
something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
then place the canvas against a tree
in a garden
in a wood
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
without speaking
without moving…
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but he can just as well spend long years
before deciding…

(click here to read the whole poem)

Mordicai Gerstein’s picture book, which would make a great present for a creative adult as well as child, brings the theme of imagination to life with its flowing lines, gorgeous colors, and hither-and-yon-flying bird. In this book, the “something pretty and useful” are a golden swing and a heap of seeds and nuts, which take a long while to entice. And waiting is shown as a big part of the creative process. We see mistakes, triumph, the arc of beginning again, and we see the bird in every picture, even when the artist doesn’t. The young painter’s canvas becomes transparent at some points, so there’ no edge between it and the world. I don’t know if this will match anyone’s creative process completely, but I think it will spur many to be on the watch for birds of all kinds, and be ready with a paintbrush or pen.

For some details on Mordicai Gerstein’s process, sometimes a roller coaster ride, sometimes like being a tightrope walker, click on his name link (under the book) to his website where you can read his Caldecott Acceptance speech. What a special gift it was, more than sixty years after he stood before his first easel, and still full of ideas that wanted expressing.

For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit the roundup at the Poem Farm


  1. Oooooh, this poem is gorgeous–right up my alley. But of course, you knew that when you painted everything around it. ((thanks you)) xo

  2. I LOVE this book, and have given many copies as gifts to writer friends :).

  3. Yes — let the rest of them have the spiced walnuts and salty almonds. I wish I had inside pages to show, which are as gorgeous as the inside. And the book is a smallish almost square, plate-sized, begging you to taste and come back. xo

  4. It is a wonderful gift, that keeps singing. My copy is propped up on my desk and makes me smile.

  5. Amazon allows you to see some of the inside pages. I flipped through a few pages, and fell in love all over again.
    I’ve got a sneaking suspicion Santa might “surprise” me with my very own copy.

  6. I love this poem and book too. It holds the mystery of creation so gently.
    I also adore Mordicai Gerstein’s A BOOK!

  7. Thanks for chiming in with your adoration, Amy! There are lots of favorites here — I often read to my daughter, back in the day, Mordicai’s lovely The Seal Mother, and got hooked on myths about selkies.

  8. Beautiful! There are a lot of treasures in Poetry Friday today…
    from Ruth at

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Ruth!

  10. Ah, now you’ve given me two perfect gift ideas for my mom, this book and A Pocketful of Posies!
    Aren’t beautiful books the best presents ever? Here’s to some special ones finding their way to you this holiday. 🙂

  11. What a lovely poem. I had not seen this before. A beautiful comment on the creative process.

  12. Books do make perfect presents, and I don’t think you can go wrong with either one of these that call to be picked up over and over. Thanks for your good wishes, Lorraine!

  13. I’m so happy you liked it! Little is more fun than pointing toward a book or poem and having someone nod or smile!

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