Tag Archives: shaun tan

my 10 favorite contemporary classic picture books

picturebooklifeHeather from Tiny Readers asked me for my 10 favorite picture books (and created that cool image), so here goes! She’s going to feature this on her super inspiring instagram feed, which I hope you’ll check out and follow!

It was a (fun!) doozy choosing! I agonized for days over my choices. I had to narrow it down, so these are all published in the last 15 years. (Stay tuned for a classics edition!)

They are books I have a strong emotional reaction to. They are extraordinary in one way or another (or several all at once). They reflect my own personal tastes and obsessions, but they also feel to me like contemporary classics. They are books that have beauty as well as meaning and heart. They are books that will last and are rich when returned to.

Here goes in no particular order (with apologies to all the wonderful and dear-to-me books I’ve left out):

the-red-treeThe Red Tree by Shaun Tan is one of my biggest influences as a writer and Tan is my very favorite creator of the form. This picture book moves me deeply each time I read it. It’s for anyone who feels like they’ve lost their way. It is sad and strange and inventive and full of hope.










Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault combines the real sisters Virginia and Vanessa with an imagined case of the doldrums and the wolfish mood it can (don’t we know it!) create. It’s through art, through a whimsical place Vanessa envisions called Bloomsbury that turns Virginia from wolf to girl, from gloom to glad again. Plus, Isabelle Arsenault.









Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is most certainly a contemporary classic. And for good reason! Jeffers has been incredibly influential to current picture book fare. And this, one of his first, has so much charm and playfulness and an irresistible duo on that umbrella-boat.






Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell, pictures by Christian Robinson. This is a picture book for the older set about the tough, inspiring, dazzling life of Josephine Baker. It lengthens traditional picture book form in order to tell a fuller story from start to finish and has colorful, vibrant, practically move-on-the-page illustrations to make you really stop and look.








Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen is by two creators/collaborators at the top of their game. I love the illustrations, the sweaters, the whimsy, the knitter at the center of this fairy tale. But what I love most is the surprise twist and the ending. Oh yes.








Jemmy Button by Jennifer Uman & Valerio Vidali is exquisitely illustrated. It’s based on the true and troubling account of Europeans in the 1800s trying to “civilize” someone who had his own civilization he preferred to return to.









The Tree House by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman (a father and daughter) is breathtaking and original. It shows off what a wordless picture book can do. It’s about companionship: the wild huzzahs of a party with flamingoes and the calm, content days spent reading in one another’s company.







Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau by Andrea Beaty, pictures by David Roberts is another incredible collaboration. Wonderful, fun-loving, masterful rhyme. Rich visual details. So much stuff to notice. And at its heart, a talented, solitary woman with a lot of hats and heart to share.













The Lion and the Bird is by Marianne Dubuc, extraordinary author/illustrator. And the pair of characters she’s created is endearing and enduring, the friendship they’ve found as rare as the beauty of this spare and perfectly crafted book. Just look at their matching pink cheeks!







Finally, Swan by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad, a very recent pick. Julie Morstad has illustrated many very special picture books (This is Sadie, How To) and this one is so gorgeous as to make me weep. Same goes for Snyder’s poetic text that so beautifully conveys the yearning, the passion, the calling of dance and doesn’t shy away from that final scene.








Thanks for the opportunity to highlight some of my very favorite books, Heather! Here’s some more about Heather and Tiny Readers:

Heather Hawkins is a Dallas-based photographer, mother of two and a children’s book enthusiast. Recently she started a project called Tiny Readers which aims to share children’s book reviews as well as feature contributing opinions from other parents, in order to bring awareness to childhood literacy and the benefits of reading. You can check out Tiny Readers on instagram here!



shaun tan + rules of summer giveaway



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?


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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.




click image(s) to enlarge

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.”

—Shaun Tan


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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.”

—Shaun Tan




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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.”

—Shaun Tan

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.)


Lost & Found CoverI highly recommend, Lost and Found: Three (2011), which is an anthology of: The Red TreeThe 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.







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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.”

—Shaun Tan

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!)

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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.


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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!)




overcome the doldrums part two/the red tree


It’s hard to quantify how inspiring this one has been for me. It belongs to a small category of very special picture books, ones that are deep and strange and sad but always end with hope.

Leave it to Shaun Tan to pull all that off.



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The first page reads: “Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” We see a girl, in a room. The colors are muted and she looks sort of doomed. She doesn’t even have lips drawn in, her expression is so despairing. In the following pages things get worse, dark, confusing. Troubles and waiting and terrible fates.


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images: Shaun Tan’s website

There are natural and mechanical phenomena throughout the evocative illustrations that are baffling or harsh or ominously gloomy. And anyone who’s experienced depression will recognize the feelings the images capture.


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But if you’re really good at noticing, as children usually are, you’ll see one red leaf somewhere on each spread —a little hint of the title’s red tree to come. Tiny bits of hope during the most lost and dark times. When the illuminated red tree does appear at the end, we finally see the girl’s mouth drawn in. It’s just one line and it’s turned up in a smile.

While there are not necessarily easy answers to the doldrums, the girl in the story is patient. And she notices that red sapling when it arrives. Or maybe she even imagines or conjures it into being.

My husband told me about a science project he did in elementary school in which kids chose a patch of dirt and took note of everything they observed.  Did you ever do that one? At first glance, it was just dirt with some grass. But the longer students looked, the more they saw: bugs and worms and details. I love this idea of quietly noticing and how our noticing expands the more we pay attention. I think it helps. Makes us more mindful. Even calms us down.


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So of course I had to do my own little patch of dirt census.

Here’s what I noticed:

  • grass, different kinds
  • weeds
  • flowers
  • spiny, round seed pods
  • dried, crumply orange leaves
  • a puddle of water from the sprinkler
  • algae
  • ants
  • little flying bugs
  • rocks and shards
  • clover
  • tiny hairs on stalks
  • exposed red roots
  • sounds of birds
  • yellow and black butterflies


Here are two other kid-friendly projects you could do this summer (or anytime!) that may take you and yours to new heights of noticing. They’re also citizen science to help do some good.

Behold the Great Sunflower Project. You pick a sunflower (or any plant) you know. Record your time and place and count the number of pollinators who visit the flowers. Then enter your data at the project’s website.  It’s that simple! And the results help scientists figure out what’s going on with the decline of bee populations. Those buggers are the ones responsible for pollinating a whole lot of food we eat. Summer peaches and watermelons? Check and check!




image: ingridtaylar via Compfight cc


Similarly, through Project Budburst you pick a plant and take a good, long look. Then you report your observations. You can do it one time this month or several times over the course of a year. This data tells the team behind the project what’s going on with  plant populations as seasons and climates change.

Lucky for me, California Poppies are one of the 10 most wanted plants and there’s this patch of them growing next to a sidewalk I stroll most days.  I’m going to have to stop  and take note!



I leave you with this quote from Shaun Tan about The Red Tree (from Lost and Found, afterword):


“…important things in life are not always immediately visible, and can’t always be named, or even fully understood. Others still are entirely imaginary—like a red tree growing suddenly in a room—although this does not make them any less real.”



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