Shaun Tan was not always an author-illustrator. As a boy, he wanted to be an astronaut. By his teens, his goal was to be a genetic engineer. Since he is of small stature, he was often the target of bullies, but he would disarm them with stories. And while his half-Chinese heritage might have led to his being picked on, he discovered that his amazing drawing ability turned potential detractors into friends. He also loved poetry as a boy and wrote his own. At the time he did not realize that stories and pictures would become his life.
Now Shaun Tan (born in 1974) is known for his richly illustrated stories of loss and alienation, filled with skies and landscapes redolent with the characteristic aerial expanses, tract communities, and desert environment of Freemantle and Perth, Australia where he was born and grew up, and of imagined, though half-real people and critters struggling to understand the vagaries of life. He considers himself ”a revisionist” in the sense that he revises and reinterprets what he sees of the world, also repeatedly revising and reworking every word of each story and every piece of artwork.
“You discover how confounding the world is when you try to draw it. You look at a car, and you try to see its car-ness, and you’re like an immigrant to your own world. You don’t have to travel to encounter weirdness. You wake up to it.”Shaun Tan
The Arrival, his poignant story of immigration told in wordless graphic novel form, took him five years to complete. Friends and family posed for him and he built three-dimensional models of some scenes to aid in experimenting with lighting. The immigrant experience is captured as a fable of a man who goes from his old-world home to find a better life for his family. The perils of the old country are suggested by the looming shadow of some monster-like presence. When the immigrant arrives at the new country where he does not speak the language and everything seems strange and hard to decipher, the harbor is vaguely reminiscent of New York, yet nothing is familiar and everything seems fascinating and filled with possibilities. No need to be specific when you can set the reader’s mind on fire with stunning indirect references. Its wordlessness parallels the immigrant’s own lack of language in this new place where he has arrived. The story is vivid without the limitations of overt text. This becomes part of his “experimenting with different kinds of illustrated narratives.”
He explains further on his website. “I became aware of the many common problems faced by all migrants, regardless of nationality and destination: grappling with language difficulties, crushing home-sickness, poverty, a loss of social status and recognisable qualifications, not to mention the separation from loved ones.”
“In seeking to re-imagine such circumstances, of which I have no first-hand experience, my original idea for a fairly conventional picture book developed into a quite different kind of structure. It seemed that a longer, more fragmented visual sequence without any words would best capture a certain feeling of uncertainty and discovery I absorbed from my research. I was also struck with the idea of borrowing the ‘language’ of old pictorial archives and family photo albums I’d been looking at, which have both a documentary clarity and an enigmatic, sepia-toned silence. It occurred to me that photo albums are really just another kind of picture book that everybody makes and reads, of chronological images illustrating the story of someone’s life. They work by inspiring memory and urging us to fill in the silent gaps, animating them with the addition of our own storyline.”
For more on The Arrival, see Sarah Lynne Reul’s wonderful 2016 post here on Writers’ Rumpus.
“One reason I do picture books today is that I remain interested mostly in very short philosophical stories rather than long-form narratives, and picture books are perfect for this.”Shaun Tan
A Broader Scope
Shaun Tan’s books have been translated into dozens of languages. He won an Academy Award as co-director of a short film version of his book The Lost Thing. During his acceptance speech, he said, “Our film is about a creature that nobody pays any attention to, so this is wonderfully ironic.” He was also given the Astrid Lindgren Award, the most generous international prize for children’s literature at $765,000. Another of the picture books he wrote and illustrated, The Red Tree, inspired a musical collaboration between the Australian Chamber orchestra and the Gowanda Voices children’s choir.
When younger, Shaun Tan was fascinated by Rod Serling’s mysterious, quirky Twilight Zone. An example of the flash-fiction-like episodes is Nightmare at 20,000 Feet written by Richard Matheson. Here Robert Wilson, recently released from a sanitarium, sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane he is a passenger in, doing damage. However, no one else on the flight can see this malevolence. Everyone believes that Mr. Wilson’s insanity has returned, consequently, at end of the episode, Wilson ends up in a straight jacket. After everyone has left, the final irony is an image of the damaged plane wing. The mood of the narrative and the twist at the end were inspiring to Shaun Tan.
He loved the Twilight Zone stories and wanted more, so he went to the library and asked what kind of stories those were. The librarian said science fiction and suggested author Ray Bradbury’s short stories of which there were about one hundred.
He read them all. As a young boy, he wasn’t sure why he liked these stories, many of which were sad or scary.
As an adult, Mr. Tan realizes that “sadness is a kind of consciousness” and that “when a book is published it becomes a conversation.” Books and writing are safe places to experience or examine sadness, fear, and other emotions.
In The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury’s two signature themes appear – children’s capacity for cruelty and the insidious potential of technology. His I Sing the Body Electric was originally a teleplay for the 100th episode of Twilight Zone. In it, three siblings who recently lost their mother built a robot to be their grandmother who will care for them. The tale reflects the kind of alienation and loneliness that Shaun Tan’s work often expresses in his own way.
Another influence was Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick in which an introduction claims a mysterious source for the fourteen illustrations and their accompanying titles and first sentences. A Mr. Harris Burdick had purportedly left them with an editor, promising to return the following day with the stories that would complete the book. But he never returned. Sounds a bit like Twilight Zone doesn’t it?
Life as Art
In 2013 at SCBWI’s New York conference, which I attended, Shaun Tan gave a values-packed keynote speech titled Internal Migrations in which he advised creators to “travel within yourself for inspiration.” And to create a “bubble of delusion” where it is safe to experiment and create. His book, The Lost Thing, stemmed from a homeless cat that he and his older brother Paul found when they were kids and kept hidden in their shed until they felt comfortable introducing the foundling to their parents. Once filtered through his experiences and vision of the world, this inner memory was transmogrified into a picture book with many layers of meaning. His own safe space to experiment with the storyline and the art includes his pet parrot Diego and an ample supply of pencils and paper. Inari Kiuru, his wife, who is originally from Finland, is a graphic designer and jewelry creator, as I learned a bit later that day.
At a moment between workshops, I headed for the elevator, pressed the button, and entered, coming face to face with none other than Shaun Tan. Just he and I as the doors closed. Not inclined to gush about his amazingness, I considered what to say. He was wearing a dark jacket and pants. On his lapel was a pressed metal moth dappled black and white. Simple, yet surprising. I commented on his lapel pin and was rewarded with a fascinating story. It was a European peppered moth, a species noted for its adaptation. During the Industrial Revolution, this previously white-speckled-with-black moth responded to the dark, sooty trees and walls blackened by industrial smog by mutating into a predominantly black morph, increasing its chances of survival. Later, when pollution was reduced and trees and buildings became cleaner, successive moths mutated back to their original mostly white coloration. Mr. Tan’s wife Inari designed the pin for him. I expressed appreciation for her meaningful gift and for sharing the story with me. Then the elevator doors opened.
“One of the great powers of storytelling is that [it] invites us to walk in other people’s shoes for a while, but perhaps even more importantly, it invites us to contemplate our own shoes also.”Shaun Tan
Wow, Shaun’s illustrations are breathtaking! I’ll be checking his books out ASAP.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments, KarenHenryClark. Although not all of Shaun Tan’s books are specifically for children, most are. And children do indeed have deeper sensibilities than we may realize. This author/artist allows kids to feel fear or sadness through books, where difficult emotions are non-threatening. Some of his stories are about empowerment, mystery, or surprise. Sometimes he includes details to balance the weightier stories. In “The Red Tree” the little girl is crushingly sad, exemplified by those black leaves sifting down upon her, the giant fish looming overhead, and the interminable time that passes in waiting for things to get better. Yet on every spread, there is a small red leaf somewhere, a tantalizing premonition that better things are coming. Then voila… a big red tree grows in her room. A reassuring conclusion, a healing moment.
Somehow startling, but I imagine many of us were struck by TWILIGHT ZONE episodes that we’ve never escaped. I’ve read several of his books and now have more titles to reserve. His work shows me that the sensibilities of children run deeper than we think.
Hi Tracey. I have been to the New England conference many times, but 2013 was the only year I attended the New York version. It was special in so many ways – the friends I went with and the amazing workshops. But experiencing Mr. Tan was magical, as you know. Great that you went.
Love that final quote. And what a thrill, to encounter him by accident, and have that one-on-one conversation.
Hello, Marty. I was greatly relieved and honored by that encounter. His way of looking at the world and his level of creativity are awe-inspiring.
I loved your line, “Books and writing are safe places to experience or examine sadness, fear, and other emotions.” I’ve seen some of Shaun Tan’s work, and I’m thrilled to learn more about the person behind them.
Laura, I’ve always wondered why so many people love scary horror stories, the type that creep me out. Tan’s message in that quote explains this phenomenon perfectly. And it is true that everyone, kids included, needs that safe book where difficult things are wrestled with by the characters in the story.
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Thank you for introducing me to Shaun’s work. I can’t wait to read some of these.
Hillary, though some of his work is wordless, each book has a marvelous story, and the art is truly remarkable. You will be inspired by the depth of his creativity.
Hillary, though some are wordless, they are all fascinating stories. And the art is outstanding. You will surely be inspired.
Thank you! This was inspiring. I was also at the 2013 SCBWI conference. Unforgettable! Lovely that he shared the story about the moth.