Shaun Tan is by all accounts, an incredibly interesting creator of children’s work; and I say this because I do believe that his work is accessible by children, which was the subject of an argument I’ve had with people and some criticism I’ve seen leveled at his work. It actually speaks to a relatively larger issue in picture books and children’s literature in general, which is the question of appropriateness. Where is there a line?
The books in particular that cause me to linger a bit are the brilliant The Arrival and, to a lesser degree, The Red Tree, which is also astounding. There is no doubt that Tan is an inspired and talented artist, and that his ability to evoke emotion as well as narrative through his artwork is highly reminiscent of Christopher Van Allsburg, who wrote Jumanji and The Polar Express, as well as various others, and deserves a blog post all his own. What’s interesting about the work by Tan, however, is a sensibility that feels “too old” for picture books aimed at children – which is generally children under the age of 10, as in the second grade, children are often encouraged to begin to pick up “young reader” novels.
The Arrival is a wordless tale of a man who immigrates from one country to another. A great deal of the imagery is familiar, but Tan uses an element of alienness – creatures who are not remotely real and cities with alien architecture – to convey a sense of foreignness and isolation. This is an incredibly adult tale, simply because of the understanding of the other and the understanding of xenophobia. But this book, which I have found as frequently in the “Graphic Novel” section of bookstores as I have in the Children’s section, isn’t necessarily singularly an adult novel. The notion that children do not have the ability to grasp xenophobia, or do not understand what it would be like to be in a place where nothing was understandable is absurd, because those are emotions that children are expected to deal with every day.
The Red Tree, similarly, deals with emotions: primarily depression. It doesn’t do what most didactic children’s material does, which is to outline depression as a word, and then discuss how to talk to doctors or parents or teachers, or treat depression like an issue. Instead, it talks about how it feels to be depressed, in simple language with corresponding images, using surreality to highlight the surreal emotions that may surround a person who feels depression.
The argument often leveled at this book is that it does not appropriately discuss depression in a way suitable for children: it doesn’t talk about grief or feeling sad in clear terms. But the notion that all children’s literature must be didactic is so unbearably antiquated that it’s shocking that anyone can think about this in these terms at all. The ability to recognize parallels is not relegated simply to the world of adult fiction, and having no easy answer is also not something that children cannot understand.
The thought that adults have to regulate children’s media is one that is worth examination. Shaun Tan’s work is a part of that examination, because his artistic sensibilities and techniques are often so honed that adults are left wondering about audience and intention. But I take issue with the notion of intention; I find this is often a way for adults to appropriate work designed for children and render it unfit for children’s consumption. This has happened in the past with books like Peter and Wendy and Alice in Wonderland, but there is something more dramatic when this is targeting a picture book. If children understand it and respond to it, what does intention matter? If children respond to it in dramatic and upsetting (to adults) ways, then why is that not a venue for communication? We cannot expect books to not portray the world in non-challenging ways anymore, especially for modern children.
This of course builds up to the notion of censorship…which leaves one to wonder about the controlling of children’s media by forces outside of the home. But that may be another post for another time.
I’m always excited to see what Shaun Tan will do next, and how his next books will open venues for conversation between children and adults.