Revealing a darker side of childhood
Childhood is supposedly a time of joy and carelessness; an endless frolic of dimpled cheeks, flaxen hair and rubious joy (to paraphrase Irish poet George Darley).
The Academy Award-nominated Australian children’s book illustrator and author Shaun Tan sees things very differently.
Firstly, he acknowledges that children can concertina with hopelessness and misery just like real, live humans.
Secondly, he reveals that it’s not only preschoolers who can relish the colour, movement and deep philosophical questions raised by picture books.
In The Red Tree, Tan’s extraordinary story about childhood depression, a mute child wakes in a tiny, beige bedroom that is choking with dead maple leaves.
Her mouth-less face is downturned, her body slumps and her orange bob droops.
“Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to,” it reads. “And things go from bad worse.”
On the next page, a terrifying darkness in the form of a titanic, weeping grouper overcomes the little girl in a street.
Wonderful things are passing her by. Terrible fates are inevitable. And the day seems to end the way it began.
When she returns to the gloom of her room that night, however, she discovers a tiny red tree growing from the floor.
And as this seedling blossoms into a luminous ball of foliage, the little girl finally looks upwards with a quiet little smile.
As someone who has experienced sensations akin to being eclipsed by a leviathanic fish, I wept the first time I reached this page.
Tan’s metaphorical depiction of the fragility and yet stubborn resilience of happiness is just so extraordinarily moving.
I also cried at the end of The Lost Thing – the book whose film version is nominated in the short animation category of the Academy Awards which will be held on Sunday night.
More whimsical and wordy than The Red Tree, The Lost Thing is the story of a young bottle-top collector who inhabits an enigmatic steam-punk metropolis with an excess of plumbing and a dearth of electronics.
One day, at a beach shadowed by rusting cement walls, this concerned-yet-unsettlingly-detached narrator befriends a kind of kettle cum crustacean emitting vapour puffs and small, sad noises.
After taking this lost thing home and discovering it eats Christmas decorations, the young man decides to surrender it to the relevant authorities.
At the Federal Department of Odds and Ends, the motto is “sweepus underum carpetae” and the promise is to deal with the disruptions posed by conspicuous absurdities of unknown origin.
Fortunately – just in the nick of ennui, in fact – the narrator learns of a new place, a utopia for lovely anomalies.
Here, the lost thing is able to exist in splendid singularity with other organic-machine hybrids such as the X873 water grinder, the symbiotic passenger pear and the four-stroke nectar-diesel coelacanth with adopted daughter.
And they all live oddly ever after.
Tan’s melancholy exploration of alienation and out-of-placed-ness is this book is immensely moving.
As with The Red Tree, he ends optimistically by suggesting that even the most freakish of life-forms can find a home; a sense of belonging which does not depend on wearing the same bowler hat and smoking the same pipe as everybody else.
While this is not an uncommon theme for popular films, book-lovers will know that the journey from stills to moving pictures is a treacherous one.
Many once-excellent stories emerge grotesquely simplified or defiled by celebrity appearances and Disney endifications.
The animated adaption of The Lost Thing, however, extends the original tale without over-answering its open questions or shying away from its edge of understated menace.
These deepenings and fleshings out are totally Tan. He spent nine years writing, designing and co-directing the DVD which has already accrued a bevy of prestigious awards since premiering in France last June.
The film – itself like a lost thing – will tomorrow night appear among the red-carpet cleavage and exposition fetish of Hollywood to compete for a shiny statue of a little gold man.
This most mainstream of mainstream recognitions may be disconcerting for those diehard Tan fans with possessiveness problems.
As UK graphic novelist Neil Gaiman has noted, people offer Tan’s books like a secret handshake, “in that way people do when they want you to have something wonderful that only they know about”.
But while it’s tempting to cling and tell California to keep its grabby hands to itself, Tan really should be shared.
His stunning, Dali-influenced drawings; his allergy to clichés; his unapologetic intensity; his willingness to wander into the gloomiest corridors of the human condition…
These are things which resonate so intensely with children, there is one five-year-old in my neighbourhood who recently announced that he wanted to be Shaun Tan when he grew up.
His plan was echoed by a younger sibling who, after initially blurting that he wanted to grow up to be his older brother, quickly corrected himself and said, no, he also wanted to be Tan.
Adults, too, form such deep attachments to Tan’s work they have it tattooed onto their bodies. A quick internet search (or a slightly longer walk round the inner suburbs of Australian cities) reveal many people with permanent versions of his imagery.
The tiny scarlet leaf hidden on each page of The Red Tree is particularly popular as a tattoo design because it is such an evocative symbol of the possibility of hope within despair.
It also explains why the book is offered as a therapeutic aid by counsellors and hospitals to children and adults struggling with mental illness and cancer.
Despite the broad and multifaceted nature of his appeal, Tan’s work has caused the occasional controversy.
The biggest was back in 2007 when The Arrival, his stunning, wordless tale about the displacement of migration, became the first graphic novel to win the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
Its victory over far wordier offerings by heavyweights such as Peter Carey and Robert Hughes sparked sniffy debates about how many words a book should contain before it qualifies as literary.
It was a small-minded argument which denied the power of non-written narratives and revealed the dangers in metrics-based assessments of aesthetic worth.
After all, does a pulp-powered offering such as Colin Spencer’s 267-page Anarchists in Love really contain more than twice the literary goodness of George Orwell’s 113-page Animal Farm?
And what of the unforgivably trashy brevity of the poem?
Anyway. While I don’t normally give a tinker’s cuss about how the awards fall at the Oscar’s, this year I’m very much hoping that Tan’s one-watt scribblers, analog terrestrial sunfishes and theoretical 234-tonne French dew bottlers win out over the toy stories.
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