The 13th-century Persian poet Rumi tells us if you love something, you should set it free. Unless it has already beguiled you and escaped on its own.
In her first U.S. publication, the picture book “Two Parrots,” Arlington-based Iranian-American illustrator and writer Rashin Kheiriyeh reimagines Rumi’s tale of a pet parrot yearning to fly the coop. Spoiler alert: He does. Other spoiler alert: Everything works out in the end.
The plot is simple: A friend from India gives a Persian merchant a pet parrot, which the merchant lavishes with presents and fine foods. But the parrot desires only freedom and a return to his flock. Instead of waiting on a change of heart from the merchant, the bird takes matters into his own talons.
Kheiriyeh believes that by keeping a story short, happy and funny, children’s literature can pass messages between generations. Having worked on children’s books in 10 different countries, Kheiriyeh says this approach is universal.
All over the world, “people think that by funny stories they can teach children better,” she says. “The messages will remain in their kids’ minds for a longer time.”
Kheiriyeh’s artwork — oil paint on paper in the case of “Two Parrots” — is imaginative and bright. The heavily textured paper on which she painted, brought back from a trip to India, is handmade. She says its texture reminded her of the clay and hay mixture used to build Iranian houses of old.
She also found inspiration in traditional Persian art, seen in the floral and geometric patterns and bold color palette incorporated throughout her book.
“I love those Persian painting styles from the past and I love blending them with the modern graphic,” she says.
Clever details add layers of meaning to the story. Watch for notes written in Farsi (one is a letter from the parrot to a friend), a bright-eyed group of serving women and a cat who meanders throughout the pages.
“Using the black cat is kind of my sign in most of my picture books. I just use it as a playful character,” Kheiriyeh says.
Kheiriyeh hopes her book will address what she feels is a lack of Iranian culture in American bookstores.
“In Iran we have rich literature from the past,” she says. “I always have a great passion to work on Persian literature and adapt it to the modern audience. I wanted to retell those stories with new images. That’s my goal.”