Polishing the Heart’s Mirror

Light suffuses this unusual picture book created by acclaimed author/illustrator Demi and poet Coleman Barks, celebrated for translating and popularizing the mystical writings of the 13th-century Persian poet known as Rumi.

Painting Heaven by al-ghazali, demi, coleman barks
With its golden cover flecked with small figures of painters and children dressed in rich hues of scarlet, emerald and violet, Painting Heaven: Polishing the Mirror of the Heart beckons readers to a numinous landscape. Based on a story in the renowned Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali’s The Revival of the Religious Sciences, this children’s book invites young and old to ponder the multifaceted nature of reality, spirituality, and beauty.
The seemingly whimsical plot springs from the visit of a Chinese painter to the King of Persia. Dressed in white and black, the foreigner makes the strange assertion that, unlike other artists, he can make heavenly paintings that “contain all the colors of the rainbow, and also no colors at all; they contain all the clouds in the sky, the sun and the moon, the planets and stars and everything on earth; but they also contain Nothing at all but the shining Light of Heaven!”
Intrigued by this extraordinary claim, the king proposes a contest. The Chinese artist will compete with five of the Byzantine kingdom’s best painters, and in six months they will all submit their work to be judged.
The ensuing contrast between the king’s chosen artists and the Chinese painter unfolds with humor and a sense of wonder. The Byzantine painters pile on the rainbow colors, images of the sun and moon, children and animals, and “everything on earth in perfect detail.” The Chinese man, however, asks for no colors and no brushes. Instead, he requests just polishing tools and cleaning rags and every morning, disappears behind a curtain to work all day. The perplexed king assumes the man must be crazy.
At the end of six months, the king encounters the expected—bright, gorgeous paintings by his kingdom’s artists—but also the unexpected splendor of the visitor’s work. Sharing the king’s surprise, readers will likely gasp as they view the Chinese man’s polished, sparkling work of art. Here, Demi delights her audience by showing the blissful visitor on a shimmering silver page reflecting the brilliant colors of the book’s opposing image.
Perhaps some will disagree with the king’s judgment, but Painting Heaven provides a singular opportunity for readers to glimpse the ancient wisdom of an Islamic philosopher who has urged humans to “polish their hearts” so they can appreciate both the visible and the invisible world.
Older readers, theologians and educators will appreciate the book’s inclusion of the translated story by al-Ghazali, a poem by Coleman Barks inspired by the tale, and passages from The Marvels of the Heart, Book XXI of The Revival of the Religious Sciences.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books

See also SLJ’s “Teachers Find Many Reasons to Use Picture Books with Middle and High School Students” and these titles …

Rumi Persian Poet Whirling Dervish by DemiMuhammad by DemiMosque by David Macaulay

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The Sublime Symmetry of Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Katherine Paterson, acclaimed author and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has infused her version of St. Francis’s hymn of praise with the same joyous reverence as the original “Canticle of the Creatures,” written in 1224. In Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the sensitive combination of polished poetic text and glorious illustrations result in a sublime feat.

Bold, giant sunflowers towering over a small squirrel and rabbit greet readers as they enter a series of playful, meticulously framed medieval scenes spanning the seasons and the phases of life. We see peasants plowing, planting, and harvesting, as well as children running, playing with dolls, and embracing each other. Humans mingle harmoniously with farm and woodland animals in the double-spread illustrations framed by elements of nature: peachy lilies, ripe persimmons, oak leaves studded with plump acorns.

Pamela Dalton, in her first children’s book, displays remarkable talent in her scherenschnitte (“scissor cuts”), a technique practiced in 16th century Germany and Switzerland and brought to Pennsylvania by German settlers in the 18th century. She has cut each illustration from a single piece of paper, painted it with watercolors, and set it all upon a black background. (Check out this YouTube if you’d like to see the illustrator demonstrate her methods.) The result is that both illustrations and text have beautifully crafted spaces in which to shine.

“We praise you for our Brother Sun,/ who in his radiant dawning/ every day reminds us that it was/ you who brought forth light.” Ms. Paterson’s words are bordered by sheaves of golden wheat and topped by a rich Old World scene of children holding hands, of reapers in the fields, and of hives, hungry bees, and fluttering butterflies.

The only distracting aspect of Ms. Dalton’s illustrations depicting images of plants and animals that inhabit the central Italian countryside, is that the children, with their kerchiefs and their straw or ash-brown hair, look Germanic rather than Italian. This is especially ironic since Francis felt so attached to his homeland and his people that he chose to write in his local Umbrian dialect rather than in the Latin spoken in the church. Despite this incongruity, one would hate to imagine this picture book without these illustrations. The symmetry, the intricate details, the intelligent selection of activities, and the obvious reverence for the natural world all beautifully evoke the spirit of Paterson’s poem based on St. Francis’s hymn.

Katherine Paterson shows she is up to the daunting task of transforming the text of a saint beloved for his gentle, peaceable spirit. The daughter of missionaries, she spent four years in Japan as a missionary, studied the Bible in graduate school, and married a Presbyterian minister. In addition to her thought-provoking young-adult and middle-grades novels such as Bridge to Terabithia, she has explored Christian faith in her nonfiction books.

The stellar accomplishment of Brother Sun, Sister Moon is that people of all faiths—or of none at all—can appreciate the life-affirming spirit of her poem: “For all your gifts – for this wondrous universe in which we live, for family, for friends, for work and play,/ for this life and the life to come — / we sing our praise to you,” she writes, buoyed by images of children jumping rope and sharing fresh bread.

In Paterson’s prayer to “the Father and Mother of all creation,” she offers readers a simple, beautiful gift worthy of its roots. Rounding out this picture book is the translated text of “The Canticle of the Creatures,” as well as interesting notes from the illustrator and the author, the latter who says she grew to understand what Francis meant when he wrote: “I have come to learn God adores His creation.”

Reprinted with permission of New York Journal of Books.

Use Brother Sun, Sister Moon with either Demi’s beautiful, recently published picture-book biography Saint Francis of Assisi

or with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s fine Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy.

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