Shaun Tan, the latest artist to give form to these German folk stories collected in the early 19th century, is not one to shy away from difficult subject matter. Even so, the ferocity of the Grimms’ tales did give him pause. Take “Hansel and Gretel”, one of the first that Tan reread four years ago as he considered whether to take on the job of illustrating them.
“It’s pure nightmare fodder,” says the Australian writer, artist and film-maker. “Starvation, abandonment, abduction, cannibalism, psychological torture and subsequent oven-based revenge: sweet dreams, little ones! But it’s also my favourite tale. The leaving of stones and breadcrumbs, the house made of cake and bread and sugar — the imagery is so strange and beautiful.”
You can see why Tan, a master of beauty and strangeness in his own right, decided to go ahead. Over the course of his two-decade career, the 42-year-old from Perth has established himself as one of the world’s most important children’s authors. This status was capped in 2011 when he won the SKr5m (£450,000) Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the richest and most prestigious in the field of children’s and young-adult literature. Yet even the most cursory glance through Tan’s densely wrought, often highly political illustrated books is enough to dispel the notion that they are for children alone. Tan himself insists that he does not have a particular audience in mind as he works, preferring to think of what younger and older readers have in common than what sets them apart.
In the book that made his name, The Rabbits (1998), Tan collaborated with the novelist John Marsden to produce a fable of colonisation rich in retro-futuristic imagery and references to Australian history. His first solo project, 2000’s The Lost Thing, was a tale about a boy and a forlorn crab-machine figure that could also be read as a critique of “economic rationalism”. It would later be adapted by Tan and Andrew Ruhemann into a film that won an Oscar for best animated short in 2011. The Red Tree (2001), a powerful and ultimately hopeful meditation on childhood depression, has inspired musical and theatrical productions and even been used as a resource by professional therapists.
But it is for The Arrival (2006), a wordless graphic novel focusing on the struggles of refugees to remake their lives in unfamiliar, confronting surroundings, that he is best known. Drawing on research into Ellis Island and mass European immigration to the US, Tan’s hand-drawn sepia frames evoke family photo albums and, at first, locate us in an early-20th-century world that we feel we know. Yet the destination country is also a place of fantastical animals, indecipherable script and flying boats, to which freshly admitted immigrants are delivered in capsules suspended from balloons. The fantasy is disorientating, capturing the texture of the migrant experience in ways that straightforward realism never could.
FT Magazine has a wonderful in-depth article and interview with Shaun Tan: How Shaun Tan transformed children’s literature. I’ll just add that I think Shaun Tan’s books are by no means limited to children, wonderful stuff.