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Jan/Feb 2005 Book Reviews

A Discussion of Shaun Tan

by Colleen Mondor


I am a big fan of the well-written and illustrated picture book. All too often though, one part of the equation lets me down, and I find myself dazzled by gorgeous pictures but left utterly disappointed by a bland and pointless story. Or, conversely, enjoying the words but unclear as to what the overwrought art is supposed to be expressing. In many ways a picture book is tougher than a short story or even a novel, as the literary and artistic components are both jointly critical to the book's success. Generally, publishers throw authors and illustrators together, and it is their willingness to communicate and work together on a project, even though they may not know each other at all, that can spell ultimate success or failure. I've seen a lot of bad books, so I know that success in this regard can't be easy. However, I recently discovered illustrator Shaun Tan, someone who is consistently up to the task, and I now have a healthy stack of his books. Each one is unique, and as a group they serve to form the most eclectic portion of my picture book collection. They are all beautiful, but that definition of beauty changes each time with the story and Tan's ability to shift his illustrating style to match the new text.

The first Tan book I read was The Rabbits, written by John Marsden. I picked it up at Powells Books in Beaverton, where it was displayed at the cash register under an enormous chalkboard drawing of one of the book's title rabbits. A Powells employee did the drawing, which was outstanding. (Wherever she is now I hope she's enrolling in art school or working on an illustration project of her own!) So, as usual, thank God for Powells. I reviewed The Rabbits in the last issue of Eclectica and still find it an awesome and intense piece of work. It is perfect for the middle grade child or anyone older with an interest and appreciation for history. Everyone I have shown that book to is blown away by its story of the European impact on aboriginal Australia and Tan's ability to turn those rabbits into industrial robber barons. It's a fantastic Wizard of Oz trip through one of the more painful periods in Australia's past. And the illustrations are what put it over the top—they make that book a piece of art, taking Marsden's chilling fable and sending it flying into a place few pieces of literature ever visit. It's that good, really. It is that good.

So then I went on a hunt for all things Tan. The next book by him I picked up was The Viewer, written by Gary Crew. Crew is a very well regarded children's book author from Australia and clearly an innovator in his craft. The Viewer is nearly impossible to explain other than to say that it is an adventure in how we see the world, or in this case how one particular boy named Tristan sees the world. By the second page the reader is visiting the dump with Tristan as he hunts treasure in a place where anything and everything can be found, as long as you are able to truly see what lies before you. Tan has a field day with the dump, filling it with everything from a pocket watch to a knight in armor to an Atlas rocket. His attention to detail makes each succeeding page a feast for the eyes, as Crew draws the reader along with Tristan's discoveries, until he finds the ultimate object, a sealed and mysterious wood and metal box. Who could resist such a beautiful thing? Tan shows us the inside: a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to visual aids, each more intricate the other. Tristan is drawn to an antique Viewmaster and slips in a disk. Then Crew and Tan take him on a journey through the history of man, the tragic history. Tan's intricate drawings on the full-page-sized disks show the Crusades, witch burnings, Stonehenge and Easter Island. Each picture must be studied for the details that reveal more of the truth behind Crew's words. The disks lead Tristan into the twentieth century, and in black and white spareness, Tan shows all the war and death our dry history books yearn to tell, if only someone would read them and learn. Tristan finds himself left with a final disk that shows only silence and destruction, death on the largest of scales. And then somehow, someway, Tristan disappears and the viewer remains behind, locked again within the wood and metal box.

What does it mean? I could drive myself crazy trying to analyze every word, every picture. But the book's intensity is irrefutable, and Tan's heartbreaking imagery, in some cases simplistic, in others finely detailed, works powerfully in this most visual of stories. The Viewer commands a visceral reaction from its readers, and Tan makes you see what Crew is thinking, what he is insisting you remember. Tan makes you see and then won't let you forget.

The next three books arrived in a rush of reviewing: Memorial, The Red Tree, The Lost Thing. Memorial is another collaboration with Gary Crew, but a vastly different book from The Viewer. In Memorial the reader is taken to a single tree in a town square and the many generations of war veterans who know it as a memorial to war, to every war they have known. Tan uses an organic style in this book to convey the recurring theme of the earth and the tree as immortal reminders to men. Crew's words are placed on backgrounds of burlap sacks; pictures are framed in wood with peeled and crackled paint. The tree is drawn always in brilliant colors, while the images of war are muted in black and white and the town square is as study in palest pastels. This is the softest of Tan's books. It has the lightest touch. But again Gary Crew is insisting that we consider ourselves, our own lack of respect for the past, and our preference for pressing to the future. Tan gives the reader birds and flowers and beetles as Crew asks if a memory lives or dies by the presence of physical memorial. It is a softly drawn book but a deeply revealing story. What future are we protecting if we cannot remember our past? Does the boy crouched over the abandoned tree trunk remember the wars without the tree? Do any of us?

It should be clear by now that Shaun Tan does not work with simple subjects, that he collaborate with authors who have demanding stories to tell. In his solo works it is no surprise to find Tan continuing to work at the same level. In fact, he becomes even more personal, even a bit more intense with The Red Tree and The Lost Thing, because these books are each about one child and what they have to lose or gain in the process of telling the story.

The Red Tree is about a sad, burdened little girl. She awakens and finds that "sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to... and things go from bad to worse... darkness overcomes you... nobody understands..." I know this little girl, we probably all do. She is spare and bereft in Tan's paintings, alone and overwhelmed and completely without hope. She walks down a city street as "darkness overcomes you" and an enormous fish, its mouth gaping wide, hovers overhead. When "nobody understands," she is beached near a dazzling blue ocean but trapped in a bottle with a diving helmet blocking her vision. She travels on through each page across a dizzying array of collages "without a sense of reason," across a threatening industrial landscape where "terrible fates are inevitable." She struggles to determine what to do or whom she is meant to be or where it is that she exists. Finally, at the end of the long day, she returns to her room and finds a single red leaf growing into a small tree. And "suddenly there it is right in front of you, bight and vivid, quietly waiting." The last page is a flush of color as the tree dazzles her with its brilliant red. Finally, just a hint of happiness, and she smiles. The red tree is there, and at last she has seen the red leaf that was present on every page, and she has hope then for a better tomorrow.

I know this little girl. Tan captures the aspects of depression that all too often are missing even in adult books: the blandness of it, the confusion, the wondering where you should go or what you should do, the questions that confound and conflict and relentlessly plague you when even the simplest of answers seem impossible to muster. Tan puts his tiny little drab girl into these situations and gives the reader a host of arresting images to illuminate them. There are passenger ships threatening to crush her, dizzy brash puppet shows confounding her sensibilities, an imposing hall of justice cast in stone to remind her "the world is a deaf machine." (Or is it a church? I have no idea.) The story is so simply told, in the fewest words possible, that the art is given full rein to overwhelm the reader. It succeeds mightily and immediately endears you to the little girl who clearly is trying, wants to know what to do, but can't find any answers. I wonder how Tan knows her so well, and what brought him the red tree so he could pass it on to her.

The Lost Thing will be released in January by Simply Read Books and is another complicated, complex, confounding adventure into Tan's crazy mechanical genius of a mind. In some ways this is a return to the world of The Rabbits, but only from a stylistic perspective. This is an industrial world, and each page has a collaged background of technical specifications, jargon and drawings. Layered on top of these are the pictures and words that tell the story of a lost thing, a red mechanical mystery found on the beach by a young man out on a bottle top collecting expedition. He waits for someone to come for the thing and then asks the many people in the area if they know about it. But, "nobody (is) very helpful." He brings it home to his parents who at first do not notice it filling their living room and then pause from their determined ignorance of their son only long enough to tell him to take it away. The boy does not know what to do until he reads an ad in the newspaper from the "federal department of odds and ends." They take lost things there. He brings the thing into the city and prepares to leave it behind—as the lost thing makes "a small, sad noise"—but then is given a card by a custodian who warns him that the lost thing will be forgotten if it is left with the feds. The boy must take it away to this other, better place. The boy and the lost thing search all day, all over the city until they find the place on the card, a place "you'd never know existed unless you were actually looking for it." Behind its door is a host of bizarre and unusual things, all happily playing and talking together. The lost thing has found its place and says goodbye. And the boy goes home to reclassify his bottle top collection. He wonders about the lost thing, about other lost things, but not for long, because he sees "that sort of thing less and less these days though." He isn't looking anymore, isn't noticing. Perhaps bottle tops consume him like the newspaper and television consumed his parents or like the people at the beach were consumed by their little personal dramas and soap operas. The unwritten punch line is that we are all like that, ignoring the lost thing—or the red tree. We don't see why the tree in the town square matters, or what the viewer so adamantly insists we recall. We are the rabbits and we ignore everyone else as we build our cities and pave our roads. We are oblivious to the world, to everything. We are rabbits and we do not see the lost things anymore.

Shaun Tan writes and draws picture books for children and adults. He creates worlds and characters that will haunt his readers far longer than they could ever believe. I think that his work might very well have changed my life. I hope it has. At the very least he, along with Gary Crew and John Marsden, has me thinking. They have me thinking about a lot of big things that I never expected to consider from a stack of picture books. Tan has drawn me a world that I can't, and more importantly, I no longer want to ignore.

 

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