Tales from Inner Academia

by Debbie
For Shaun Tan, it’s a tale of two awards. Last month an Oscar, no less, for his short film, The Lost Thing; now the Astrid Lindgen Memorial Award for Children’s Literature – ‘The World’s Largest Children’s Literature Award’. (Largest, in case you were wondering, as I was, refers to the monetary value of the prize.) Even without the gongs, Tan’s work is so evidently streets ahead of the competition, that it’s generally received, as Dickens would have it, in the superlative degree of comparison only. So how to go beyond the superlatives? What makes these books so compelling? A few odd thoughts in no particular order.

Modality and mystery

Perhaps reflecting the current postmodern fascination with the multiverse, Shaun Tan’s pictorial worlds are simultaneously comfortably recognisable and unsettlingly alien. They make the familiar strange and the strange seem familiar. Tales from Outer Suburbia’s very title brilliantly sums up the effect, for what location embodies mundaneness more than suburbia, and what the genuine unknown more than outer space? So a Tan world is both normal and odd, but odder than that oddness is the text’s view of what constitutes odd. A street in which a vacant lot is occupied by a buffalo the size of a house: utterly normal. Street inhabitants consulting the buffalo on their problems: similarly normal. The fact that the buffalo might have communicated his advice verbally – but simply chose not to (buffalos hate talking): again, normal. How his directions always led to something apposite, suprising and delightful: mysterious. People in Tan worlds are often baffled and intrigued, but certainly not by any of the features that strike us as most odd. And I think that’s it. It’s the point at which the normality of the conjured world ends that the point about the world outside the text begins.

Product and process

When I embarked on my art degree, I was completely taken aback to be told that from hereon in, art was no longer about finished product but about process. The journey, the exploration, the quest – that was what we were now to be about. (I’m sure first-year art students today are not so naive, but this was the eighties.) And of course that is how it has to be. For the moment we are focused on the product – or even, perhaps, the audience – we kill our creative engagement. If so many picturebooks seem too derivative, too “me too”, it is surely because they are written or drawn with one eye on the bookshop shelf. They ooze self-consciousness. So when the ALMA report notes that for Shaun Tan, every book he produces is
an experiment in visual and verbal storytelling, it is pointing to one of the secrets of his success. Open any of Tan’s books and you are drawn into the exploration because he himself has been drawn into the exploration. The result: breathtaking originality, with integrity.

Theme and variation

All of Shaun Tan’s books are strikingly original. Yet the same themes occur repeatedly. Reading Tales from Outer Suburbia, for example, is a bit like listening to Bach’s Goldberg variations. You get the same themes played out again and again, but with exquisite and constantly surprising variation, and the effect is incredibly satisfying. There are echoes here of Lissa Paul’s suggestion that a fractals geometry has something to offer those working on a poetics of children’s literature: the idea that repetitions of self-similar structures produce unexpectedly various views on the world. In the end, she says, fractal geometry “argues not for a world that is explainable, but for one that is infinitely varied”. A Shaun Tan world, in fact.

Scholars and schoolchildren

Tales from Outer Suburbia provides rich pickings for literary, cultural and media critics. Last year our PhD group spent a pleasant afternoon with each of us in turn subjecting the unsuspecting text to the literary theory of our choice. The text stood up admirably to interrogation and we were entirely happy in our work. But what about the children whose literature, apparently, in some way, it is? Well, actual children aren’t always the first or indeed any concern of scholarly children’s literature criticism. (Sincere apologies for dropping that bombshell if you’ve just happened along.) Still, given that questions are often asked about whether gongs really go to those who deserve it, it seems right to give the final word if not to a child, then at least to a teacher. One of our former MPhil students, Helen Jameson, who has returned to the classroom reacted to the news with delight, telling us that “the children in my picturebook club have been entranced by Shaun Tan’s work and The Red Tree has been read over and over again countless times by children in my class.”

Shaun Tan: visual texts for children from three to ninety-three; for academics from primary to PhD.

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