Shaun Tan is truly a picture book hero of mine. His work is mysterious and deep and dark and beautiful. It hits so close to home and one never outgrows it. In fact, you may have to grow a bit to fully understand it.
Let’s talk about his picture books, okay?
My favorite: The Red Tree.
I’ve written about this one before. According to Shaun Tan, the story is “emotions as landscapes.” Specifically, feelings of depression, overwhelm, alienation, and confusion.
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Those feelings become Tan’s signature settings: strange, mechanical worlds. He also leaves small clues in the paintings. In this case, the tiny leaf on every spread foreshadows the red tree to come. See the tiny orange-haired girl above? And that red leaf by the fire hydrant, on the gutter?
Tan’s works may be dark, but each concludes open-ended. There’s room for a red tree to magically sprout. There’s room for what comes next.
“There is always a glimmering tentacle of hope.”
Most celebrated: The Arrival. A wordless graphic novel meets picture book that portrays an immigrant experience in a way that looks like fantasy but captures the feeling fully and realistically.
“…a story about somebody leaving their home to find a new life in an unseen country, where even the most basic details of ordinary life are strange, confronting or confusing – not to mention beyond the grasp of language.”
Made into an Oscar-winning animated short film: The Lost Thing. Here too, there’s so much to the setting. Layers and layers of visual clues. We recognize the story the (now grown) boy is telling us; it’s familiar. Even the place is familiar despite its cold, strange menace.
A boy who collects bottle tops is a likely candidate to notice something else out of place. Something huge, but that no one else sees or can see. It’s a lost thing and it belongs with other lost, magical, wonderful things that very few notice. Especially after they grow up.
“‘the lost thing’: a vague sense of forgetting something important, losing the inspirations of childhood, or being worn down by the pressure of adult pragmatism and cynicism.”
The Lost Thing might be childhood, or the curiosity of childhood. It might be kindness or connection. It might just be a lost thing. (In this one, readers can search for tiny squiggle-like arrow shapes on each page.)
I highly recommend, Lost and Found: Three (2011), which is an anthology of: The Red Tree, The Lost Thing, and The Rabbits, with Tan’s commentary at the back. All three titles are not available individually in the U.S., so it’s a great way to get three in one! Plus, The Rabbits, Tan’s collaboration with John Marsden, is incredible.
Tan’s latest: Rules of Summer (2014). Two boys (brothers) and 16 rules. The first: “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.”
“Ideally we might study this story in a similar way to dreams, looking for some waking insight within irrational play.”
While some rules seem more random than others, there are commonalities. There’s always some threat of consequence (e.g. creepy red rabbit and black birds throughout). And there’s always some dynamic push-pull going on between these two boys, one clearly older than the other.
For me, the absence of parents is important. It feels like these two characters live in a precarious, unpredictable world (perhaps all children do to some extent.) Because of that, their relationship is that much more important. And more fraught. They are everything to each other.
The older brother protects the younger, instructs him, punishes, shuts him out, and betrays him. In the end though, always hope, in this case in the form of a rescue and the most scrumptious summer fruit parade that would make Wayne Thiebaud proud.
Not to mention Tan’s trademarks: vast, desolate spaces and bizarre machines and creatures and layers and layers of paint.
(And check out my first Their Picture Book Life post on ISOL!)
Thanks to Scholastic for images! You can check out Shaun Tan’s website and he’s got a blog too, with process work, paintings, and more.
Scholastic has generously provided one copy of Rules of Summer to give away!
Enter to win by leaving a comment on this post! It’s that easy.
I’ll contact the randomly chosen winner by email for your mailing address.
(Enter until Monday, July 21 at midnight; open to North American residents only—sorry about that, far flung international readers!)