Reviewed by Angela Marie
Shaun Tan has a rare talent; in reality, many rare talents. Most obviously he is a superb artist and illustrator. Within his works, as we take in the page, our eyes are drawn to the essence of the illustration, whether this be to focus on a point of colour or to sweep over an elaborate and detailed double spread. As an author, he is often economical and precise. During an ABC radio interview he commented, “You know, sometimes I think it’s better to just say less because everyone’s imagination is quite interesting …and I don’t want to clutter it up with my own ideas.” He is respectful to the reader.
As a literary form, the picture storybook is generally regarded as purposefully designed for the realm of the young child where concepts and relationships are presented in a format that delivers a simplified message aligned to the child’s emotional and cognitive development. As adults we may admire the outstanding artwork, or the cadence and rhythm of the language of the picture storybook, but are seldom given cause to stop and think. In the traditional picture storybook we seldom meet complex issues that challenge the adult whilst engaging the child. Shaun Tan’s work is not traditional and not aimed at a target audience. Rather than tell us how to respond, he steps back. In the author’s words, ” Any real meaning is left for the reader to find for themselves, rather than overtly stated or implied…”
Shaun Tan’s picture storybook, Cicada, is set in a bleak, grey corporate cityscape, not identifiable as any specific place or culture. We meet Cicada, a dedicated and hard-working data entry clerk. A perfect employee. A picture of perseverance and determination.
Seventeen year. No promotion.
Human resources say cicada not human.
Need no resources.
Tok Tok Tok!
Page by page we share the inequity of Cicada’s existence, the bullying, the humiliation, the isolation and the abject poverty. Less than another brick in the wall. Life is work and work is life. In a scant 150 words, Shaun Tan is able to pierce our hearts and shake our conscience, documenting the injustice practised towards those considered expendable. Replaceable. Lesser. Different. Topical considering the ongoing social dialogue of work/life balance, workloads, mental health and stress.
Retirement arrives with no golden handshake. With no handshake. No assets and no home. The future appearing as grey as the pages. We follow as Cicada treks a final journey to the top of a tall building and stands at the very edge, gazing into the murky mist.
Then the remarkable and miraculous. The twist, so essential in much of Shaun Tan’s work. We breathe again. An unexpected outcome. And as always with his books, and their open endedness, there is much to dwell on and discuss. Our differing interpretations as encouraged by the author, and perhaps the timeless symbolism of the cicada as resurrection and spiritual immortality.
Cicada is a work of mastery. A volume of images cloaked in the mood of grey falling away to the wonders of nature, with a nod to the short-sightedness and lack of understanding of humans. A salute to metamorphosis, optimism, belonging and kinship. Possibilities. In this reviewer’s opinion, Cicada stands resolutely besides Shaun Tan’s other classics, The Red Tree and The Lost Thing, as a powerful example of inventive Australian literature. The surrealism of his art falls subtly into his words, convincing the reader to believe.
Search for hidden gems within Cicada. Pore over both endpapers. Pay particular attention to the copyright/acknowledgement page.
Tok Tok Tok!
It will come as no surprise that Shaun Tan graduated from the University of Western Australia with honours in both Fine Arts and English Literature. He learned how to push on through rejection of his work and subsequently, in addition to his wonderful books, has worked in theatre design, on Pixar’s WALL-E, and shared the 2011 Academy Award for the Best Animated Short Film for The Lost Thing. He has presented a master class at the Edinburgh Book Festival and is generous in interviews.
On winning the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, also in 2011, Shaun Tan joined the likes of Maurice Sendak, Philip Pullman and fellow Australian, Sonya Hartnett, in being recognised as a world-class author who has demonstrated work of exceptional quality and value to children. And not only to children. As Shaun Tan acknowledges, “Simplicity certainly does not exclude sophistication or complexity.”
By Shaun Tan