A version of this piece was first published on 22nd December, 2013 in my column, Tots to Teens in The Sunday Star
RULES OF SUMMER
Author & Illustrator: Shaun Tan
Publisher: Lothian Children’s Books, 48 pages
NEVER BREAK the rules. Especially if you don’t understand them.’ That’s on the back-cover of Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan’s latest picture book. One might also say, ‘Never discount a Shaun Tan picture book. Especially if you don’t understand it.’
I hardly ever understand Tan’s picture books. Or rather they usually leave me feeling perplexed and with many questions. I once remarked to a fellow-Shaun Tan fan that his art is so beautiful that it doesn’t matter that his stories don’t quite work or make sense. At that point, I believed that Tan would not be a published author if he wasn’t such an outstanding artist. However, I’m starting to change my mind about that. Now I think that when Tan makes a whole book, providing words and pictures, you can’t have one aspect without the other. The words may be cryptic, they may not make up the usual story pattern – conflict, climax, resolution – but they offer the reader a starting point to create that structure for herself. They set the wheels of the imagination in motion, and that’s also what his art does.
Tan’s pictures tend to contain rather fantastic details that can be interpreted in countless ways. I think it’s a good idea to approach his words in the same way. If you want to read a traditional type of story, with a beginning, middle and end, you may be left wanting, but if you like the idea of working in collaboration with the author/illustrator to create a story that is totally your own, then Shaun Tan is the storyteller for you.
“Never break the rules. Especially if you don’t understand them.” My therapist said to me just yesterday that if we find ourselves breaking personal life rules, we should see it as a red flag, a warning that things aren’t quite what they should be. Thus, we should pause and take stock of the situation, not just plunge wildly on.
I guess rules are there for a reason. They serve to protect and preserve, to limit damage. You know what I’ve said before about books coming along at just the right moments? It’s happened again with Rules of Summer. Tan’s guide to a successful summer is a guide to life. “Never eat the last olive at a party”, “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline”, “Never drop your jar” … these rules are specific to the book and the pictures they accompany, and you can take them literally or imagine that they are metaphors for deeper, larger truths and conditions. The world Tan depicts is full of threats, but so is the real world. Who’s to say that giant red rabbits and large menacing birds in dinner jackets aren’t symbols – of our fears, of social conventions, of public opinion and everything else we grapple with in life.
“Never give your keys to a stranger”. Yes, that’s a pretty sensible rule that applies across the board. It accompanies one of my favourite pictures in the book: A young boy peers though the window, looking into room, lit only by the flickering light of a television. Inside, seated on the sofa, watching the telly and eating crisps, is another boy and a large pyjama-wearing cat. Arranged neatly, in a row on the floor beside the sofa, are their slippers – the cat’s resemble large, hollowed-out paws. On the wall above the sofa, a portrait of the cat and the boy, and the shadows of the pair … two cat silhouettes, four pointed cat ears …. Oh the stories you could weave around this picture.
“Never wait for an apology”. I love this rule, to which can be added, “Those idiots will never admit they’re in the wrong”, as well as “Ask for one instead, but don’t be disappointed if all you get is a blank, moronic stare.”
“Always know the way home.” Very good advice for children who, often, don’t even know the name of the street they live in, but for me, with home as a metaphor for personal ideals and principles, an important rule for living a life of integrity and honour.
This is definitely my favourite picture book of 2013. When I first read the book, I found it strange and somewhat disturbing, but the more I looked at the art – rich, dark and gothic, mysterious and astonishing – and read the deceptively simple words, the more I was inspired, moved and even comforted.
Life is often puzzling and painful, but with time comes comprehension and revelation. Rules are created as a result of experience. Well, rules to live by should be, at any rate, the result of personal trial and error, and a carefully-thought-out, slowly-arrived-at knowledge of things. Rules of Summer offers talking and thinking points that explore life’s tricky ups and downs, twists and turns. May we survive all the blind corners in our individual journeys, and live to write our own rules of summer, of life.
N.B. When I interviewed Tan in 2009, he said ‘I look for any artist, regardless of medium, genre or reputation, who is able to create something honest and with complete integrity, and can come up with a visual language that is inseparable from whatever they are trying to express. The idea and its representation become the same thing.’