Shaun Tan – a brief thought
Jul 27, 2019
Reading Time: 4 minutes
02 Dec 2023
There is a true joy in discovering something new, so back in 2002 or so in an unlikely bookshop, I discovered something that has ended up an ongoing journey of unfolding surprises. ‘The Lost Thing’, with its almost abstract narrative and illustrations was so immediately captivating for me, I wondered if it was really meant to be a children’s book at all.
From this first book I have gone on to snap up most things Australian illustrator, sculptor and author, Shaun Tan, has published and in doing so, I have been taken on an unlikely journey as Tan, a multi award winner, has broadened his scope of work to increasingly include more ‘adult’ orientated books.
I don’t find it easy to describe just what it is about Tan’s work, both literary and illustrative, that I find so enchanting. In many ways, I categorise him in the same way I would Haruki Murakami – their work is both multi faceted and almost abstract, yet tackles expansive landscapes of ideas and issues in ways that do not seem obvious at first. Reading their books, it’s easy to be transported somewhere else in the back of your head, all without realising it.
Tan’s books have the unique quality of delivering poignant messages, often in the camouflage of children’s literature. His recent book ‘Cicada’, a beautifully illustrated, minimally worded, story of a cicada office worker is enchanting for our son in its illustrations and simple wording, but also delivers messages of segregation, isolation and the mundanity, almost pointlessness of what society regards as the mainstays of the adult working life; messages that are squarely aimed at the more mature reader, a.k.a the parents.
2006’s book, ‘The Arrival’, an epic work of illustration delivers a moving and thought provoking story of immigration, hope, despair and acceptance – without as much as a single word. The beautiful work is powerful and provides a poignant message for Australian’s, both back in 2006 when it was published, and today, where immigration is a continuing topic of debate at a time where the right is increasingly outspoken at a governmental level. But what I see as The Arrival’s greatest strength is it demonstrates there is ample room for beautiful exploration of big ideas, that teach and provoke, in a form that all generations can enjoy; a vast contrast to a lot of trashy fart and poo books that pass as children’s literature these days; children are capable of so much more than many give them credit for these days…
Over the time that I have been following Shaun Tan’s work, the subject matter he has covered is vast and impressive. From the delicious ‘Rules of Summer’, through to Tales from Outer Suburbia and the newly released Tales from the Inner City, Tan has embarked on visual and written narratives that explore childhood, suburban memories and explorations of modern society in a manner that can seem almost whimsical on first reading. His works are framed with beautiful, rich and often odd illustrations that combine visions of what we recognise melded with colours, shapes and ‘beings’ that we don’t yet do at the same time; the images hold a depth of richness and emotion that allow them to weave themselves into the context of the words, all in a way that is so natural that you do not regard them as anything else other than integral parts of the overall narrative.
If you have not had the opportunity to discover Shaun Tan’s work, there’s plenty to start with but my suggestion, if you don’t have any kids to use as an excuse, would be to begin with ‘Tales From outer Suburbia’ or his latest ‘Tales From the Inner City’, both of which are wonderful showcases for both is writing and illustration work. From there you can dive deeper, without feeling guilty for buying ‘children’s books’ for yourself.