I was drawn to this book because of the illustrations by Frederic Clement. They are beautiful. I was delighted that the story is beautiful as well.
Teiji is a famous painter whose paintings are sought after by people far and wide. One day, while he is painting, he sees a beautiful flock of birds fly by. The birds are the most beautiful that he has ever seen. So beautiful, in fact, that he cannot paint anymore. He goes off in search of the birds. He walks and walks until he finds an old man. The old man tells him that the birds are wild swans who come from Siberia and spend the winter on an island in the middle of the lake. The old man warns Teiji that it is dangerous to cross the lake in the winter, because of the ice. Teiji says that he can’t paint unless he sees that real beauty again. He feels such a strong need to see the birds that he sells everything he has, with the exception of his brushes and paints, and gives it to the old man for his boat. Teiji takes the boat across the lake. When the ice breaks the hull and the boat capsizes, Teiji is plunged into the icy water. Freezing, but determined to see the beautiful birds again, he drags himself to the island. There he sees the wild swans. He realizes that true beauty is impossible to capture in a painting and is grateful that he has had the chance to see the birds before he dies.
My students were very quiet while I read this book. I think they were taken in by the fact that Teiji would give away everything he had just to see the birds again. Although adults reading the book understand that Teiji has died at the end of the book, not all students do. We often spend time discussing the ending as so few books end this way. This is a thoughtful, beautiful book.
Interestingly, Claude Clement and Frederic Clement are not related. Please note that both their last names should appear with l’accent aigu over the first “e”.