RULES OF SUMMER By Shaun Tan
Summer has always been the season of adventure – the days seem longer, darkness comes late and time feels less demanding. In Shaun Tan’s latest picture book, summer is also the season of discovery as two boys embark on a quest that either takes place in their own small, suburban world, or in another world entirely.
This is just one of the many opportunities for the reader to speculate about what may or may not be happening, as a nameless narrator passes on poetically-brief warnings about the consequences of not following certain arbitrary ”rules”, the first of which is: ”Never leave a red sock on the clothesline”.
Like most of his best-selling books (The Arrival, The Lost Thing, The Red Tree), Tan creates a new visual language with a story that begins on the cover where the boys can be seen at play in a landscape both exotic and achingly familiar. Rules of Summer poses an unending number of questions, making it both wholly original and endlessly fascinating.
While the lone red sock fails to catch a breeze, two boys crouch behind a fence as an enormous, fiery red rabbit, like a macabre animal run amok from a parade, squeezes down a back lane, a pink eye scanning the scene. The image first appeared in Tan’s The Bird King and other Sketches, and it’s interesting to note the changes the original work has undergone in this new setting.
In ”Never step on a snail”, a tornado bears down on an ordinary street on a cloudless day, and in ”Never give your keys to a stranger”, one boy watches television with a giant cat, while another peers through the window. Locked out? Too scared to come in? And what about the bird that appears on almost every page? Harbinger of doom, a talisman? Are the boys brothers or friends? There are no facts, only the answers you create.
About halfway through the book, the tone changes. ”Never ask for a reason” features the boys fighting as a group of creatures that appeared in earlier pages looks on. Tan’s pallet turns from blazing reds and yellows to smoky greys with ”Never wait for an apology”, which shows the younger boy, alone in a bunker surrounded by a menacing flock of black birds. An ordeal of some sort has taken place.
Visually, Rules of Summer shares its DNA with The Lost Thing, in which empty fields or blue patches of sky inevitably bump into a smoke stack, a nameless factory or an industrial wasteland on the suburban fringe.
Despite the incongruous nature of many of the images, there remains a vein of recognition throughout the book and when read on an emotional level, the characters aren’t nearly as aimless as they first appear: friendship, fear, adventure, that moment when you realise you’ve suddenly strayed from the familiar into the foreign – are all exquisitely rendered.
Rules of Summer is about superstition and the consequences, real and imagined, that come with the territory that is childhood. For older readers – anyone who isn’t considered a child – the book offers countless interpretations and layers that will make each encounter memorable.
■ Frances Atkinson blogs at slightlyfoxed1968.wordpress.com
This review first appeared in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, 16th November, 2013.
AS someone who has spent practically all their working life at a newspaper (until recently), I feel slightly ill at the thought of the printed book becoming obsolete. I don’t think it will happen, in the same way as I don’t believe The End of Newspapers means the end of good journalism. But like the media industry, the printed word is currently in a unprecedented position. Change is inevitable, and welcome, but making news today (in Australia, anyway) is the announcement that Amazon has now officially opened its Australian Kindle Shop in an attempt to lure away customers from independent booksellers. Anyone living in Australia who loves buying books understands the dilemma: books are expensive, with paperbacks ranging around $35 and new hardbacks, anything up to $50, so while fantastic, independent shops struggle to keep their customers, the lure of cheap books often wins out.
I’ll admit it, I’ve used a couple of the massive online sites, but rarely and these days I search Bookworld before heading off shore. What online can’t give me is pleasure of walking into my local bookshop, the tactile satisfaction that comes with browsing books on a shelf, the exchanges that happen when you talk with experts who understand books and know what you like. For me, and extra $10 is worth the price if it supports independent bookstores and our writing industry.
I’m lucky enough to live in Melbourne – a UNESCO City of Literature and although some have fallen by the way, we’re still spoilt when it comes to bookshops, amazing places that help shape the city: San Francisco has City Lights, Paris has Shakespeare & Co, London has Dents, Portland has Powell’s and here, we have Readings, Hill of Content, The Avenue, Collected Works, The Sun Bookshop, Embiggen Books, My Bookshop, Hares&Hyenas, and The Little Bookroom, to name but a few. I can’t imagine my city without these fantastic stores.
THERE is nothing quite like the anticipation that comes with reading a new book. I’m pretty haphazard in how I come to my next read: book reviews play a part, hype and buzz another, but so do trusted recommendations from bloggers, friends and people in the publishing industry.
I’ve had two books waiting in the wings: the stack – that holding pattern for books: Eyrie by Tim Winton (Penguin, $45) and Autobiography by Morrissey (Penguin, $22.95). I jumped into Eyrie. I was taken with the premise: a middle aged, disenchanted guy named Keely, living in a high rise apartment in Fremantle crosses paths with a woman who loomed large in his teenage years. Gemma, once a beautiful a young girl, is now a battler and looking after her grandson, an insightful young boy who forges a connection with Keely.
I really enjoy Winton’s writing and I admired many moments in Eyrie, but I had trouble getting swept up by Keely, Winton’s middle-aged protagonist. What I did enjoy was Winton’s ability to build tension and how firmly he located me in Keely’s world. You know something is coming, what you don’t know is if Keely will survive it. In the end, I was glad I’d read it, but it’s not a book that will stay with me. That said, I’ll always read Winton – when it comes to capturing the ocean, the curve of a wave, he’s untouchable. That alone keeps me coming back for more. You can find a good interview with Winton by Jason Steger here.
I’m still reading Morrissey’s Autobiography, but it’s so frustrating. I love The Smiths and while I’m really enjoying the parts about his childhood growing up in Manchester (so bleak and brutal) musical influences and his lonely days trying to work out where he fits in (he nearly really does), there’s just so much drivel. His one liners can be brutal and beautifully poetic, but all too often they are followed by a slab of ponderous musings that go nowhere. What do I want? More wit, more humour, more grit. Who knows, maybe it’s all in the last couple of hundred pages. I’ve just read a par about Morrissey spotting his literary hero, James Baldwin in a hotel lobby in Barcelona. He’s deserperate to approach the author, but doesn’t want to risk having his illusions shattered. I think it’s too late for me.
Jane Godwin, illus Anna Walker
There’s no getting around it, the first day of school is a biggy. One minute you’re busily searching for that missing puzzle piece, or putting a Band Aid on Ted’s wonky arm, the next you’re road testing a back pack and writing your name on a brightly coloured piece of plastic that Mum calls a ‘lunch box’.
Polly, Sunita, Tim, Hannah and Joe know exactly how you feel. In Starting School, readers follow this mildly nervous bunch as they take their first steps inside the classroom. Hannah is feeling excited, but Tim’s not quite ready to say goodbye to Mum. Polly is doing her best to be brave, while Tim finds distraction in a book about dinosaurs.
It’s a day full of firsts, but their teacher Miss Quick is never far away and does her best to make everyone feel welcome. First up is a tour of the school, and before you can say monkey bars, Hannah and Sunita are good friends and Tim and Joe have found a ladybird. Back in the classroom, Miss Quick runs through the rules (put your hand up when you want to say something), and makes sure everyone knows where the toilets are. Before you know it, the bell has rung and the playground is full of parents waiting to hear about The Big First Day.
Anna Walker’s illustrations are a delight; she manages to capture each personality and reveal the unspoken in the tilt of a head, stripy tights, or little, nervous hands. The colours are muted and soothing and the book is brimming with her own particular eye for detail.
One of best aspects of the book is that it acknowledges a few of the worries some children might have about starting school – practical things like queuing up at the tuck-shop, getting lost, or finding the toilets. Jane Godwin’s text is playful, but it is also direct and reassuring, and may go some way to help children feel a little less nervous about that first day.
This is the fourth (hopefully not the last) collaboration for Godwin and Walker (Cat and the Big Red Bus, Today We Have No Plans, All Through the Year) and once again they’ve managed to create a beautiful picture book for young readers.
*this book was kindly sent for review.
The Wishbird by Gabrielle Wang, Penguin, $14.95
ALL books tell a story of one kind or another, but not all books are written by storytellers.
How can you tell? It’s different for every reader, but for me it’s when I’ve reached a certain point in a book and I realise the author has caught me in the fine webbing of a good story. I feel immersed in the world on the page, I care about the characters and maybe most importantly of all – I want to know what happens next.
The Wishbird is one of those books. It tells the story of Oriole, a young orphan girl who has spent her life in the Forest of Birds with her guardian Mellow (a wishbird), and a flock of avian companions. Life is sweet – she’s surrounded by birdsong and protected by all the creatures in the forest. But when Mellow’s health suddenly declines, and Oriole has a prophetic dream, their peaceful life in the forest comes to an end. As Mellow slowly dies, he talks more about his past – and Oriole realises that in order to save him, she must travel to the City of Soulless, a place where music and colour are banned, to find answers that will change her life forever.
The Wishbird is not only full of rich characters (especially Boy and Lady Butterfly), engaging story arcs, and gorgeous line drawings, it is a layered, thoughtful book about finding courage in the face of daunting challenges, the power of friendship, the importance of family, and seeing past the superficial. Wang’s writing is lyrical, evocative and honed, and every detail has a purpose, it either moves the story along, or adds depth to the story.
The Wishbird may have been written for younger readers in mind (ages seven and up), but it’s really a book for anyone who wants to be gently drawn in and taken away by a true storyteller.
by Bronwyn Bancroft
Lionsville is a “secret place” surrounded by mountains and rivers and it’s where the artist Bronwyn Bancroft grew up. During the day, she swam in the creek, where catfish made their nests in the sand, at night all the kids slept in big beds on the verandah, listening to the tree frogs sing.
A descendant of the Bundjalung people, Bancroft’s story is simply told, but powerfully evocative, like the detailed illustrations on every page.
Using collage, paint and photographs, the picture book feels like a richly illustrated biography focussing on certain memories that capture Bancroft’s childhood. “I remember coming to Lionsville in the big blue Ford, nine of us, three in the front and six kids squashed in the back – my eldest sister always got the front seat. We sang songs all the way.” But the book also honours the love and wisdom of her elders and their spiritual and physical connection to the land.
Aimed at readers five and up, Bancroft’s story is gentle, contemplative, and it’s clear that hopes for the future lie in remembering the past. This is a beautiful, large format picture book that celebrates Aboriginal culture and encourages all of us to “listen to our old people” and celebrate their “struggles and victories.”
House Held Up By Trees by Ted Kooser, illustrated by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press, $27.95
Before I even opened this book, the cover tossed up a memory – of long country drives, catching glimpses of big houses hidden by high hedges and gates. Sometimes I’d see a peaked roof, or a tall chimney, an overgrown garden, or a long driveway lined with pines. Then there was the small houses, cabins or huts left to decay, or the lonely stone cottage in the middle of nowhere. These images were only flickers – swift flashes out a car window but as a kid, they always lit up my imagination.
This book tells the story of a house built on the edge of a forest and home to two children and their father. While the kids love playing in the cool of the forest, the father prefers to mow his immaculate lawn, removing any stray leaf or twig that blows his way. Years pass, the children become adults, while their now elderly father still fusses over his patch of green, until one day he decides to sell and move closer to the city. The house goes up for sale but no one wants to buy it, instead seeds eventually grow into tress and by the end of the book, the house has returned to the forest and is majestically held aloft by maple, elm, ash and cottonwood.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Ted Kooser, the melancholy story beautifully captures our need to control our environment and slow down the relentless passing of time. Kooser’s honed text conveys other themes too, giving readers subtle hints about how the children relate to their father – like the house itself, as his children grow up, he gets left behind too.
Jon Klassen’s (I Want My Hat Back) illustrations are no less insightful. Clean and precise, every page reveals a different perspective on the house (we never see inside, only the exterior), from above, from the edges of the forest, each brush stroke captures nature slowly reclaiming what’s theirs.
So who is this book for? It’s difficult to say. Very young readers (three plus) might respond more to the visuals, while old readers (six plus) will have a better chance at picking up the nuances. There’s no right answer. This is a book for anyone who enjoys original story telling and perceptive, haunting illustration.