Saturday, September 19, 2009

Author Focus: Shaun Tan

This post has been updated since Shaun's Oscar win for the short film 'The Lost Thing' HERE

1. About Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan has helpfully provided a description of himself that I've used as the basis of my summary. His website indicates that he was born in 1974 and grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. In school he became known as the 'good drawer'. Later he studied at the University of WA and graduated in 1995 with joint honours in Fine Arts and English Literature. He currently works full time as a freelance artist and author in Melbourne.

Tan began drawing and painting images for science fiction and horror stories in small-press magazines as a teenager, and has since become best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through surreal, dream-like imagery. Many of his books have been widely translated throughout Europe, Asia and South America, and enjoyed by readers of all ages. Tan has also worked as a theatre designer, and as a concept artist for the films 'Horton Hears a Who' and Pixar's 'WALL-E'. He is currently directing a short film with Passion Pictures Australia.

2. His Books

It is difficult to categorise Tan's books because they are often heavy on illustrations and light on text (his latest book is an exception to this) and while looking like books for young children, they generally cover content that is more appropriate for older readers. Some have suggested that his work should be put in the Graphic Novel category, but to my mind many of his works sit more comfortably in the picture book category, as long as you don't assume that picture books are just for young children. He describes his books this way:

"They are best described as ‘picture books for older readers’ rather than young children, as they deal with relatively complex visual styles and themes, including colonial imperialism, social apathy, the nature of memory and depression."
In reviewing Tan's book 'The Arrival' in the Sydney Morning Herald (here), Angie Schiavone made this comment on his books:

"Tan's books, while marketed as children's, tend to explore quite complex issues. Yet they manage not to alienate younger readers, rather challenging them to develop empathy and (perhaps more realistically) better visual literacy skills.......Whether a child is up to the challenge of Tan's picture books is, of course, a decision for parents and teachers..."
Most of Tans books have themes and issues that are well beyond most young children but visually they can capture the interest of readers of all ages. Below I have provided a detailed description of his latest book highly acclaimed book, 'Tales From Outer Suburbia' and a brief description of his other books. They are presented in reverse chronological order.

Tales From Outer Suburbia (2008)

Many see Shaun Tan's latest book as the pinnacle of his work. 'Tales From Outer Suburbia' won the 2009 Children's Book Council Australia award for 'Older Readers'. Tan is the first author/illustrator to win this section of the awards; an illustrated book has not won previously. This is a remarkable work from a remarkably talented illustrator, who in this book shows us that he can also write; something that some critics have doubted in the past. It is an anthology of fifteen very short illustrated stories. Each is about a strange situation or event that occurs in suburbia - a visit from a nut-sized foreign exchange student, a dugong that appears on someone’s front lawn, a new mysterious room discovered in a family home, a description of what happens to all the poems that people write, a grandfather's puzzling story about his wedding, a wise buffalo that lives in a vacant lot and gives directions. Central to each story is how ordinary people react to and make sense of these experiences.

The judges praised Tan's work suggesting:
"Tan breathes life and wonder into each story using his trademark illustrative style to increase meaning and enjoyment.....'Tales from Outer Suburbia' is an immense achievement.
I love this book too. Perhaps the kid in me loves the absurdity of the stories. The first story sets the tone for the book. It tells of a water buffalo in a vacant lot at the end of the street. He would slowly point people in the right direction, "But he never said what he was pointing at, or how far we had to go, or what were supposed to do once we got there." This is the type of silliness that my grandchildren fall about laughing at when I tell them stories - the mysterious, the ridiculous, the confusing, the "I don't get it" story that intrigues.

One of my favourites is "Broken Toys". Two children meet a 'crazy' person wandering down the street in a 'space suit' (well, a deep sea diving outfit). For fun they direct him to the house of another mysterious and misunderstood person in their street, 'Mrs Bad News', a strange Japanese lady. The outcome of their stunt has a surprising outcome. What child hasn't had a 'crazy' person down the street? I did! The fear of the 'other' is a real human fear as we grapple with difference and try to cope with people not like us. This is a theme that seems dear to Tan's heart. It makes a reappearance in 'Eric' the story of an exchange student who lives in the narrator's house, does unusual things and disappears mysteriously leaving something just as interesting behind. It is back again in the guise of class difference in 'Our Expedition' and then terrorism and war in 'Alert but not alarmed'.

At times I think that Tan tries just a little too hard to make his ideological points, but as soon as I start thinking this, I'm forced to smile at the next absurdity and his sheer cleverness. My favourite 'story' is his graphic collage of writing fragments as he explores the question "what happens to all the poems people write?" You'll need to read the book to find out; I'm not telling you!

I can see bright boys (and girls) aged 10 plus loving this crazy, whimsical and thoughtful book that tries to do new things with Tan's special brand of image and word playfulness, rare creativity and delightful illustrations.

The Arrival (2006)

'The Arrival' is a 128 page sepia-toned, photo-realistic picture book that tells the story in images of a man's migration to a foreign place. He experiences temporary separation from his family, bewilderment and loneliness as he tries to make sense of his new home. The absence of words, along with the mix of real and at times surreal images, evokes a sense of how the man might have felt in a new place where everything seems strange including the people, food, animals and language.

The Lost Thing (2005)

'The Lost Thing' is a humorous story about a boy who discovers a bizarre-looking creature while out collecting bottle-tops at a beach. Having guessed that it is lost, he tries to find out who owns it or where it belongs, but the problem is met with indifference by everyone else, who barely notice its presence. Each is unhelpful in their own way - strangers, friends, parents are all unwilling to entertain this uninvited interruption to day-to-day life. In spite of his better judgement, the boy feels sorry for this hapless creature, and attempts to find out where it belongs.

The Viewer (2003)

Known for his horror stories, 'The Viewer' was written by Gary Crew and illustrated by Tan. It tells of a boy whose obsession with strange artefacts leads to the discovery of an unusual and mysterious box at a dump. It turns out to be an ancient chest full of optical devices. One of these captures his interest. It is a complex mechanical device that carries disks of images. These carry scenes of violence and the destruction of civilisations over time. The boy is scared, but cannot help himself and looks into the machine.

The Red Tree (2001)

In 'The Red Tree' Tan uses a balance of simple words and his usual detailed and exquisite illustrations to address the sensitive topic of depression. This is not your typical childhood topic, but as I said above, Tan is writing for older readers, and sadly depression is very much part of the life of children and adolescents. The story essentially follows the life of a little red-haired girl, her everyday feelings and her realisation that life can be difficult. Almost unnoticed in his illustrations is a small red leaf (perhaps symbolising hope) that recurs. The story ends with the girl standing and smiling at a flourishing tree with red leaves growing in her bedroom.

Memorial (1999)

'Memorial' is a beautiful picture book written by Garry Crew and illustrated by Shaun Tan. It tells the story of a tree planted by returned servicemen near a war memorial monument, in a small country town. Years later the tree has grown to be very big and is a problem as it begins to damage the statue next to it, creating a traffic hazard in a part of the town that has grown more busy and less tranquil over time. Tan uses a very organic style against varied backgrounds (including hessian bags and picture frames) and the recurring tree in brilliant colours. The text raises many questions beyond the basic dilemma of whether to cut it down. What place do memorials play? Do those who view a memorial recall memories that it is meant to honour? And what is the consequence for the loss of such links to our memories and our lives? What price the past when compared with the future?

The Rabbits (1998)

'The Rabbits' is written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan. While John Marsden is one of Australia's best writers of adolescent fiction, the text in this graphic novel doesn't quite reach the heights of Tan's illustrations. The story depicts Australia's white settlers as rabbits. This none too subtle use of metaphor is a little obvious even for children. Its message is a retelling of the 'stolen generation' in Australia, the practice of removing Indigenous children from their parents when the family was seen as dysfunctional. This occurred from 1869 to 1969. The illustrations are wonderful and have the usual Tan creative mix of styles and techniques. In this book he uses some wonderfully drawn landscapes, collages and more 'graphic' stylised images for the rabbits. It is a mix of light and shade, colour and 'darkness'.

Other works

'The Haunted Playground' (2007) was written and illustrated by Shaun Tan.

'The Deadly Doll' (2007) was written by Janine Burke and illustrated inside the book by Shaun Tan (not the cover).

Trapped' (2007) was written by James Moloney and illustrated by Shaun Tan

3. His Awards

Shaun Tan has won many awards including being the first Australian to win the International 'Illustrators of the Future Contest' in 1992. His collaboration with John Marsden on 'The Rabbits' won the 1999 Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year Award. 'The Memorial' was an Honour book in the CBCA picture book category in 2000. 'The Red Tree' was an Honour Book in the CBCA awards in 2002. In 2007 he was named Best Artist at the 'World Fantasy Awards' in New York for his 128 page wordless picture book 'The Arrival'. The same book won the CBCA picture book of the year award in 2007, as well as both West Australian Premier’s and New South Wales Premier's Book of the Year Awards. And of course this year 'Tales from Outer Suburbia' won the CBCA award for 'Older Readers'; another first.

4. Other related posts

2009 CBCA awards (here)

All Author Focus posts on this blog (

Shaun Tan's personal website (


SquiggleMum said...

Thanks for this interesting post on the fascinating Shaun Tan. The Red Tree is my favourite :)

Hannah Blake said...

Hi Trevor, I found your blog via Nicole's and have really enjoyed it for quite a while. I'm studying Primary Education at uni and so it's been great to read your thoughts on literacy! We've also read a few of your papers in my course.

I really like Shaun Tan too, particularly The Arrival. A group presented a literacy block based on this book in a tutorial just this week actually, focussing on visual literacy. The pictures are just wonderful, aren't they! They really draw you in to the story.

Thanks for your blog, I really enjoy reading it!

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Squiggle Mum and Hannah for your comments. Yes, I like both 'The Red Tree' and 'The Arrival' too. Glad to hear that you are training to become a teacher Hannah. Shaun Tan is a wonderful illustrator, he's still developing his craft as a writer but he shows great promise in 'Tales From Outer Suburbia'.