On Wednesday, Older Brother, Little Brother and I had the thrill of hearing this year’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winner Shaun Tan speak at Seven Stories in Newcastle, during his whistle-stop visit to the UK. I’ve loved his work since being mesmerised by The Arrival four years ago; and we’ve also had the privilege of featuring Shaun’s work in our PaperTigers Gallery. Shaun’s picture books truly tap into something essential in our existence so that no matter how old you are and whatever your life experience, there is something there for everyone to absorb and distill. His books have had a big impact on the boys too, and it was a real eye-opener for them to meet their creator and hear about the drawn out process and sheer hard work that goes into producing a book. Now we are all desperate to see the Oscar-winning short of The Lost Thing!
Older Brother was most struck by Shaun saying that imperfection was a “very important concept for an artist”; and that he is always aiming for simplicity, because it’s through that apparent simplicity that he can achieve layer upon layer of meaning. Then accompanying the text with unexpected illustrations to create further tensions – but he pointed out that he wouldn’t call his work surreal per se: rather, the unexpected juxtaposition of familiar objects in his work is what is surreal.
Little Brother especially loved the first in Shaun’s series of cartoons depicting a day in his life: Waking to the Sound of a Solitary Cicada – a huge cicada looming in through the open window. He’s still laughing about that (but, as is so often the case with Shaun’s work, for me, the more I think about it, the more the funniness is tempered with a feeling of unease…). Little Brother also came home thinking about the humor and tensions achieved by people/creatures doing extrordinary things as though they are completely normal – like feeding Christmas decorations to a huge, friendly monster-machine aka the Lost Thing. And when Shaun pointed out that, as per the element of the familiar present in all his creations, the Lost Thing is a cross between a dog, a horse and an elephant, yes, you can absolutely see it.
I was bowled over by Shaun’s generosity in handing over his creations to their audience with an open invitation to interpret. He told us how in his writing, he pares the words down, excluding any emotional words because he wants the readers to have space to bring their own interpretation to his work. And he took us through his creation of the water buffalo giving directions to the little girl with a box from Tales from Outer Suburbia (you can see it in Shaun’s interview with Drawn here): how initially there was something peeping out of the box, and how he felt it wasn’t fair on the viewer to be so prescriptive, so he left it up to each person to imagine what was in the box.
It was also a real treat to see two extracts from the animated version of The Lost Thing and to hear about the ten-year project to bring the book to the screen, including Shaun’s determination to retain the flatness of the illustrations, so as not to imbue the animation with too much ‘reality’. Fascinating!
Shaun told us about his early days as an artist, with examples form his early childhood (yes, his talent was immediately apparent), and about his path to becoming an illustrator, including his first major picture book The Rabbits; how The Arrival started out as a conventional picture-book before evolving over five years to the genre-changing work it proved itself to be; about his unwillingness to be pinned down to a single interpretation of The Red Tree; and about how his immigrant background and his suburban upbringing have each affected his work.
Here are some of Shaun’s thought-provoking gems:
[About his studio] It’s not romantic… It’s like a kitchen with pencils.
[In his narratives] Big no no; never explain.
I’m always trying to work against language. Pictures provide an invitation to resolve differences.
[About people today being very visually literate] We’re so good at reading pictures, we do it very quickly. Through my artwork, I’m trying to get people to examine, to contemplate, to look at things for a long time and really think.
Images can expand or contract time. A picture book doesn’t have to be linear.
[We should read a picture book] three or four times. The first reading doesn’t count – all you get is an idea of the story.
One of the functions of fiction is to fill in the gaps in personal/social/collective memory.
Whatever readers see [for example, in The Arrival] is only a thin slice of the situation – like in real life.
I’m very fond of charcters pointing off into the distance at the end of a story.
Sometimes the best story is one without words or pictures at all.
I do want my work to be about everything – quite a tall order…
And despite it being well after midnight according to his bodyclock, Shaun then undertook a marathon and much appreciated book signing. I didn’t think my copy of The Arrival could be any more precious but now it’s priceless. Thank you, Shaun, for being so open and generous a speaker, and for signing our books. It was a truly inspirational talk.
The good news is that Seven Stories filmed the talk and I’ll keep you posted as to when it becomes available. In the meantime, do also read Seven Stories’ write-up of the event, as well as this post from the Templar Publishing Blog and Genkijen’s post, in which she reflects on Shaun’s talk from her perspective as a teacher. We were the family sitting next to her