Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, April 2011
Genre: Fiction, Picture Book
Where I Got It: Amazon Vine
My Rating: 3.5 stars
First of all, I’m not exactly sure how to go about classifying this book. It isn’t a graphic novel as it contains three short illustrated stories/fables. It isn’t a picture book (in the traditional sense) for young children. I suppose that it is a graphic picture book meant for older children and adults. It is one of those books that you need to see to fully understand, which is why this post will include several photos.
Perhaps the best way to review the book is to talk about the three different stories and share some of the illustrations, as I believe that Tan is known more for his illustrations than his writing.
The Red Tree is the first story in the book and was probably my favorite. I’d describe it as “a depressed person’s version of Dr. Suess’s Oh The Places You’ll Go.” The story starts with a little red-haired girl who wakes up to these lines: “sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” We then turn the page to see this:
Like the more upbeat Dr. Suess book, the girl ventures forth into the world, which is populated by fantastical and oftentimes dark images and words that do little to lift your spirits (“the world is a deaf machine/without sense or reason”). Like the Dr. Suess book, she even comes to a waiting place (shown below).
I was glad that the story ends with a sense of hope, as I was quite worried about where Tan was going to take this things. Still, some of the images lingered with me afterward, and I found myself returning to it for another look.
The Lost Thing is a bit more fanciful. A young boy (who reminded me of a Gary Larson cartoon) finds a lost thing that defies classification—it kind of looks like a big red teapot with legs. The boy decides to help the lost thing find its place in the world after realizing he cannot keep it at home.
After traveling around the city, the boy and the lost thing eventually find what they are looking for and part ways—with the boy ending up losing quite a bit more than he anticipated in the process. The end of the story reminded me somewhat of The Little Prince (when you become a grown-up and stop seeing a boa constrictor inside of an elephant and instead start seeing a hat).
The illustrations were more complex in this story—with the drawings placed on top of text and engineering diagrams. I kept looking for hidden meanings and “clues” in the backgrounds of the picture—as well as in the repeated images of smoke clouds that I were sure meant something if I could only figure it out (see below).
The Rabbits is a story written by John Marsden. Departing a bit in tone (due to the story being written by another writer) and look (I thought Tan’s art was strikingly different in this story with the use of brighter colors), The Rabbits tells the oft-told story of white people invading a land and displacing the native people, except Marsden and Tan substitute rabbits for humans (although Tan’s illustrations of the rabbits make it clear what they represent).
As you might expect, the rabbits destroy the land, the native animals and pollute everything in sight. The story isn’t subtle and even younger children will probably be able to make the leap that the “rabbits” represent “humans.”
In the end, I’m not quite sure what to make of this book or who would be the target audience. I suppose that the book might appeal to older children who have an artistic streak and a conscience. In addition, the book might appeal to adults who are interested in Shaun Tan’s art or who want to impart some deeper messages to their children. In the end, I didn’t fall in love with this book, but I do see its merits. However, I confess to feeling like I was missing something (nuances? deeper meanings?) in the illustrations. Like all complicated picture books, this one probably deserves a slow, lingering read and several revisits. For me personally, I just didn’t gravitate to Tan’s style, which was more muted and depressive than I prefer. However, I’m sure this book has an appeal to fans of Tan’s work and readers who like their “picture” books with more gravitas to them.
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