author spotlight, illustration, social-emotional

Author Spotlight: Shaun Tan

You rarely see picture books that work for little children but become much more powerful the older you get. Shaun Tan writes and illustrates those very types of books that feel like modern classics. Tan finds ways to talk about profoundly difficult & complex ideas in a manner that a child will understand. Born in the port city of Fremantle, Western Australia, Tan was drawn to art & storytelling from an early age. Around age eleven, he developed a deep interest in the Twilight Zone and the books of Ray Bradbury, both of which are apparent as influences in his work today. A brief dalliance with the idea of being a chemist in high school eventually became Tan shifting from academics at university to focusing on his art. The result is an incredibly distinct art style that combines traditional linework with collage elements. Reading and viewing Tan’s work expands your consciousness about what a picture book can do & say. If you are unfamiliar with his work, please check it out and think about what children in your life would click with these unique & moving texts.

The Lost Thing (Lothian Children’s Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan

For ages: 4-8
Tan made his debut as an author with this picture book which delivers a fairly standard plot made into something extraordinary through his art. A little boy finds a lost creature on the beach and tries to find the owner. He asks his parents if he can keep it. That is met with a no. So, our protagonist assumes he will have to hand the creature over to the authorities and hope for the best. However, the best place for this creature is discovered in the end. The images stand out because this lost thing is a towering hermit crab-like animal. Instead of a shell, it has nested inside a massive red teapot-like structure. Tan presents the city setting of the story as drab & gray. The creature is often the most colorful thing on the page. These visual cues are part of the story’s theme, an observation that the most beautiful/strange people & things have a difficult time finding a place in this world. Still, there is always somewhere that will embrace them with open arms.

The Red Tree (Hodder Children’s Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan

For ages: 4-8
In recent years, more picture books have been published addressing the complexities of human emotions, especially how children feel them. The Red Tree is enigmatic and requires the reader to engage with the text and think about what is happening. A little girl wakes up one morning and immediately shares how little she looks forward to the day. The world is colored by her mood, which is drab & bleak. Strange things abound: a fish floats over her head and spiders rain from the sky inside her bedroom. She wanders around a confusing world that often isn’t what it appears to be at first glance. Finally, she comes home, still feeling down. But something is different in her bedroom now; a bright gorgeous red-leafed tree sprouts and changes her mood. This is the only time we see her smile. I adore that Tan refuses to be so evident as to spell out what is going on in this story. I can guarantee the students who need to hear this one will get it, though. Tan can show depression in a form that, sadly, too many children relate to, but they need to see & hear they aren’t alone. Other people sometimes feel the same things, so there is a community to find that can provide support.

Cicada (Arthur A. Levine Books)
Written & Illustrated by Shaun Tan

For ages: 9-12
Cicada is one of my favorite picture books of all time. That age range might come as a surprise. Still, this book will be most impactful with slightly older students as it works with some of the heaviest themes they are likely to encounter. Cicada is an office drone but also an insect. He wears a little suit and toils away in his cubicle for a company whose purpose we never quite understand. We see the world from his perspective, meaning people’s faces are obscured because they are tall. Cicada is a strong worker but is regularly bullied and marginalized in the workplace. His speech is exceptionally primitive, often missing direct/indirect objects and using incorrect subject-verb agreement. There is a rhythm to it that would make a read-aloud a pretty powerful thing. Despite feeling so sad for most of its length, Tan has a clever twist at the end that changes how we view Cicada’s perspective. What it does is mirror our own lives back on us: how we often marginalize people that are different & how adults accept such awful work/living conditions without protest. Cicada is a fantastic piece of literature & a vital meditation on examining our lives.

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