Shaun Tan is known for his innovation in the picture book world. His texts are cutting edge, with ambiguous, open-ended illustrations and text (or noShaun Tan is known for his innovation in the picture book world. His texts are cutting edge, with ambiguous, open-ended illustrations and text (or no text, as the case may be) that challenges readers of all ages. He pushed boundaries when he developed his book The Lost Thing (2010) into an animated film, so it’s not surprising to see him venture into the digital book realm. It’s important that quality picture books move into this market, since there is a lack of high quality digital literature with which to engage children and young adults.
Rules of Summer (Tan, 2013) is not an easy book to understand in either format (Willey, 2014). Its sparse text, its confusing images, and tension between the words and the pictures require sophisticated interpreting. Narratives like this reinforce the argument that picture books are not just written for very young children. Tan’s books require readers to put away their preconceptions and open their mind to a different way of thinking about, and understanding illustrated texts.
Rules of Summer was originally published as a hardback picture book in 2013. Not long after, an interactive version was available through iTunes (Wheelbarrow, 2013), and can be viewed in conjunction with the print book, or in isolation. It stands alone quite well, with the option to ‘read’ two versions, the complete story, and one titled ‘sketches’, which reflects its unfinished status. The music and sound effects add a haunting lyrical mood. There is no explanation how to navigate the app, but it doesn’t take long to work it out. There are two ‘pages’ that belong together – the first one has the very sparse text which plunges (via a tiny hyperactive icon) into Tan’s artwork, his mysterious imagination free of explanation, conformity or a sense of knowing.
The seven year old girl who I showed it to, quickly worked out the pattern of ‘reading’. She started to expect a surprise or scare by about page four, moving swiftly from the close up view to the full image, so she could see the characters. She didn’t question Tan’s inclusion of odd creatures, robots, or even weather phenomena, and there was a clear understanding that the younger boy was losing ‘the game’ on most of the pages. We explored each page at least twice. We picked out our favourite ones, and looked closely at the ‘sketches’ to see how these differed. I saw her engage fully with the interactivity and our discussions were amusing (stop clicking. I’m doing it), and insightful (Will (her older brother) doesn’t change the rules, I do).
Tan’s work, particularly Rules of Summer, is ideally suited for use in a lower secondary English classroom. The Year 8 syllabus specifically requires the teaching of visual literacy (ACELT1628) to develop understanding of the ways visual texts differ from written texts. Tan’s artwork offers the opportunity to improve observational and interpretative skills (Serafini, 2011), and to learn about the literary devices of symbolism and metaphor. Clearly it’s a book that could also be used in Art, New Media and Visual Arts, across a range of year levels, ensuring its universal appeal.
There is much to admire here. The artwork evokes many different emotions: Each page conjures its own mood – colour to denote happiness, grey monotones to reflect aloneness, and shadows where sinister happenings are hinted at. It is unfamiliar yet familiar. Tan’s suburbs are recognisable, but they are also not where we live. It’s fantastical and wondrous, but also scary and dream-like. It’s an amazing journey where discussions are almost necessary. The perfect way into books.
This review was written for INF533, Literature in Digital Environments, as part of a Masters of Education.