Do you know what Shaun Tan is?
Yes, he's an artist and a graphic novelist, I know that. A muralist. An artistic polymath, one might say. But I was sitting here trying to review the three stories in this book, and when I tried to describe "The Red Tree," a quiet, sad story with a hopeful ending, the association that came most strongly to mind was "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Say what you like about Paul Simon, and believe me, I think he's been kind of a hack since before Graceland, that song is poetry.
Shaun Tan writes:
Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to
and things go from bad to worse
darkness overcomes you
the world is a deaf machine
Now, that is either Maurice Sendak's Max all grown up and having an extremely bleak day, or it's "When you're down and out, when you're on the street, when evening falls so hard..."
And then I was re-reading "The Lost Thing," in which a boy finds a giant teapotty-looking thing with little tentacles that likes playing ball, and all I could hear in my mind was Adrian Belew telling improvised stories on King Crimson's Discipline album. Never has prog rocked so hard. Or if Talking Heads drew graphic novels. Which, who knows, maybe they did in their spare time. RISD, you know.
And all this is without mentioning the art. The art, the art, the diving helmets and tiny leaves and vast landscapes and the colors of Shaun Tan. The feeling you get looking at Shaun Tan's art that there is some additional communication going on, a visual code that maybe you'd be able to decipher if you tried to do it just after you'd woken up.
This is one of the more purely illustrative paintings in the book. It accompanies John Marsden's allegorical short story "The Rabbits." Note the European military attire of the rabbits and please recall that Tan and Marsden (Tomorrow, When the War Began) are both Australian. But just because it's an obvious allegory doesn't make it a bad story - no, it's lovely. Short, devastating, lovely phrases.
Exactly like the repeated phrases Robert Fripp laid on over King Crimson's sonic complexity, the sad simple lines Paul Simon wrote for Art Garfunkel to sing, accompanied by increasingly lush orchestration. So, to me, Shaun Tan is a composer. He writes lyrics and draws music.
BUT. Will your kids like it? Probably. Depends on the kid. That first story is a little uneventful and sad, but The Lost Thing is a romp, almost impossible to dislike, and The Rabbits has a satisfyingly predictable trajectory and truly majestic illustrations. It's not for little kids though - I'll say middle grade and up, but really middle grade is a stretch. Middle school and high school. And adult. Yep, definitely adult.