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‘The Singing Bones’ by Shaun Tan ****

In his inspired and unique take on the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, Shaun Tan presents seventy-five of their stories, each with an accompanying sculpture.  He has photographed each of these interpretations beautifully, with light and shadow coming into play almost as much as the objects themselves. 9781760111038

The Singing Bones includes an introduction by fantasy aficionado Neil Gaiman, and an insightful essay by Jack Zipes, entitled ‘How the Brothers Grimm Made Their Way in the World’.  Tan himself adds an afterword, which, despite its brevity, demonstrates his passion for his interpretation.  He has chosen to take extracts from Zipes’ 1987 translation of the Grimm tales; his text feels fresh and modern, whilst still getting across the horror of many of the stories.

Tan has focused upon both well-known tales – for instance, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and ‘Snow White’ – as well as the more unusual.  Tan’s accompanying sculptures are beguiling and strange; some of them are even creepy.  Despite their differences, there is a marvellous coherence at play here; details have been followed from one sculpture to another, from the set of the eyes of particular characters, to their absence in others.  He has a style all his own.  Of his work, Gaiman says: ‘His sculptures suggest; thy do not describe.  They imply; they do not delineate.  They are, in themselves, stories – not the frozen moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be.  These are something new, something deeper.  They do not look like moments of the stories: instead, they feel like the stories themselves.’

In his introduction, Gaiman writes: ‘People read stories.  It’s one of the things that makes us who we are.  We crave stories because they make us more than ourselves, they give us escape and they give us knowledge.  They entertain us and they change us, as they have changed and entertained us for thousands of years.’  This sums up Tan’s achievement perfectly; he has worked with a slew of stories which we are all familiar with, but has managed to make them entirely his own.  The way in which Tan has managed so seamlessly to translate his distinctive style from illustrations and graphic novels into the three-dimensional form shows that he is an incredibly talented and versatile artist.  The Singing Bones is a marvellous choice for all fans of fairytales, or for those who want to see how the same story can be so differently presented.

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‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan ****

Let us begin with the wealth of praise for Shaun Tan’s graphic novel, The Arrival:

  • “Tan’s lovingly laid out and masterfully rendered tale about the immigrant experience is a documentary magically told.” — Art Spiegelman, author of Maus
  • “An absolute wonder.” — Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis
  • “A magical river of strangers and their stories!” — Craig Thompson, author of Blankets
  • “A shockingly imaginative graphic novel that captures the sense of adventure and wonder that surrounds a new arrival on the shores of a shining new city. Wordless, but with perfect narrative flow, Tan gives us a story filled with cityscapes worthy of Winsor McCay.” — Jeff Smith, author of Bone
  • “Shaun Tan’s artwork creates a fantastical, hauntingly familiar atmosphere… Strange, moving, and beautiful.” — Jon J. Muth, Caldecott Medal-winning author of Zen Shorts
  • “Bravo.” — Brian Selznick, Caldecott Medal-winning author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret
  • “Magnificent.” — David Small, Caldecott Medalist

9780439895293The lovely sepia-toned illustrations in The Arrival are so detailed that they resemble photographs.  One can pore over them for an awfully long time, and still find new elements.  Tan wonderfully evokes the immigrant experience, and does so solely through the use of his artwork – no mean feat. It is a beautiful, strange, and mesmerising book, which shows a bewildering journey to an unknown land, and the importance of family.

The elements of magical realism are enjoyable, and Tan clearly has a great imagination.  It has been quite some time since I last read a book with no words whatsoever, but doing so was rather a lovely experience, it must be said.  The Arrival is not quite a favourite – Brian Selznick has spoilt me, I think – but it is a book which I will certainly be recommending.

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