Shaun Tan, for the uninitiated, is an illustrator, designer, graphic novelist and children’s storyteller whose works have a flavour of Neil Gaiman and Edward Gorey whilst at the same time retaining an eerie originality. His latest, Rules of Summer, looks and feels like the kind of book parents might read to their children at bedtime – until you dig deeper and realise that Rules of Summer is more likely to provoke the kind of questions likely to keep kids awake rather than ease them gently to sleep…
The cover shows two boys and given their size and the fact that the book is dedicated to ‘the little and the big’, you presume pretty much that these two are brothers – and although this is never explicitly stated in what follows, the story that unravels – in which the Big can be a bit mean to the Little – gently supports this idea. These two are given to marching (on the inner title page) with trumpets and big bass drums, although ‘Little’ is clumsy – he drops his baton and later will spoil a game by having one of his small metal dragons stand on another of his small metal dragons and pull a tail off.
The first major spread is wordless (and it’s important to know, in engaging with Shaun Tan, that the pictures are not just there to be looked at – they are saying something, you have to engage, glib watching will not do with a Shaun Tan book) – the two boys on a beautifully rendered empty street (and you wonder, where is everyone? what are the boys whispering about? what are they up to?). Over the page, a single line of copy:
“This is what I learned last summer:”
set against an abstract yellow page of crayon and scribbles. This is what who learned? you think. It helps to know that this is Little talking (we think).
From here on in, for the most part, we have a line of text and an accompanying illustration. For instance,
“Never leave a red sock on the clothesline”
is accompanied by a terrific image of the two boys cowering, perhaps in their back garden, as an enormous red rabbit with angry red eyes peers over the fence. They won’t do that again in a hurry, the reader thinks. When you read through the book a second and a third time, as you will if you have inquisitive children, you’ll start to peer more closely at the way Big and Little are sat (as if Big is making stuff up just to scare the shit out of Little). The same, arguably, applies to the illustration in which Big is tugging Little away from the last olive, the two of them surrounded by stuffy cravat wearing eagle people with a carnivorous caste to their eyes (my six year old daughter said, ‘if he eats the last olive all of the bird men will peck him to death’ – this is the kind of statement Shaun Tan books elicit).
Each spread tugs at your sympathies in some way – when Little drops his collecting jar off the top of a water tower when the two of them are catching marine invertebrates and flying fish that appear to be flying past in the sky, you (possibly) think ‘Big went to all the trouble of getting you up there and you dropped your jar, you little dingus’; when Big starts the robot parade without his little brother, you think, ‘couldn’t you have waited just five minutes…?’ When Little goes to stamp a snail, Big points out the hurricane that will ensue. When Little leaves the back door open overnight and the room fills with fleshy vines and bewildering sea snails and lizards, it’s only fair he make Small tidy up (Little’s sad face is a picture, both literally and figuratively). They are brothers, basically. Fighting, making up, tormenting each other, driving each other mad, always playing together.
Outside of the narrative, and for the first few reads, each spread has that Gorey capacity to stop you in your tracks. You’ll be attracted or alarmed by the beautiful illustrations, or staring intently to try and work out what is going on and where your sympathies lie this time around. My personal favourite involves the lesson that you should
“Never give your keys to a stranger”
Big sat on the couch watching TV next to a huge cat whilst Little stares sadly in through the window. There is also a great deal of fun to be had (particularly with smaller children) trying to find the dark black bird that stalks the boys throughout their early adventures. Of course, the bird comes into its own after Little, having lost a fight, appears to be given away and imprisoned n a smoke-spewing metal train engine. The three wordless spreads indicating the passage of time will tug at the toughest heart strings.
Of course there is redemption and a climax that recalls ‘The Little Orphan’, the Oscar winning Tom & Jerry cartoon from 1949 in which Tom, Jerry and a little orphan mouse do battle on a table laden with food. All told, though, this is the kind of book that will have parents cooing over the amazing art and children relishing every dark turn (slightly perturbed by the fact that parents seem to be showing them something not altogether appropriate – that edge makes the experience delicious for children).
Any Cop?: A beautiful twisted artefact for parents and sophisticated children.