“sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to”
– Shaun Tan, The Red Tree
This past semester I took a creative writing class for the first time since high school. Being an MA in Children’s Literature student, it was, of course, a class on writing children’s literature (big surprise there!) While it was an absolutely amazing course where I learned a great deal, read brilliant pieces and improved in my own creative writing, it was also an excellent opportunity to witness some misconceptions people have about children’s literature as most of my peers in the class were not MA in Children’s Literature students, but creative writing students.
One thing that I frequently noticed was how often my peers felt that children’s literature for young readers (namely, picture books) shouldn’t be too challenging or difficult. There was an emphasis on not using complex vocabulary or dark themes. This is a common and fair misconception about children’s literature as many people feel that children should be protected (and rightly so!) However, sometimes this means that texts that deal with difficult struggles that are real struggles for many children are often avoided or unheard of, and these struggling children go without.
Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree (2001) is about sadness, loneliness, loss, confusion and pain. It is a very difficult picture book and has few words with dark, ominous, depressing pictures. This is not a picture book I would recommend to just anyone. While it ends on a note of hope, throughout the images do an excellent job capturing the emotional turmoil of what it feels like when things go from bad to worse.
What is striking about this picture book is that each image stands entirely on its own. There is no sense of narrative with this picture book. While things just get worse and worse and worse for the protagonist, there is no indication of how the protagonist got from one thing to the next. This creates a feeling of sudden change, which accurately demonstrates how quickly things can come crashing down sometimes. What is also interesting about this is that Tan’s style is distinct for each image, and there are clear similarities between some of the images and other picture books of his. For example, the page with the giant fish feels like something out of The Arrival, while the page on inevitable terrible fates is more reminiscent of The Lost Thing. Furthermore, the setting with the helix shell is almost identical to the setting in Tan’s semi-autobiographical “A Day in the Life” (2013). What’s most interesting about this is that many of the comparisons I can make are with texts published after The Red Tree, suggesting that perhaps Tan’s clear intimate knowledge of sadness and pain that is apparent in this picture book is also a place that he draws artistic inspiration.
While The Red Tree does an excellent job representing sadness and other depressing emotions through few words and intense images, the lack of narrative and the sudden hope at the end makes this my least favourite of Tan’s picture books. It is a difficult text to swallow that I would perhaps find more helpful if I was suffering with some sort of grief or pain in my life and it was used in a biblio-therapeutic way, though I am no expert in biblio-therapy. I unfortunately find this picture book hard to recommend and unsatisfying, though I am sure it is very beautiful and cathartic for the right reader. The ending is hopeful, though may also feel naïvely useless to someone struggling with something severe and intense. Though this is only a speculation.
Despite this there is something to be said about the emotions represented in this picture book. If I had to define art (something so many people have tried to do), I would simply define it as creation that makes you feel. And it is quite clear that Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree is able to do exactly that. There is sadness and pain and worry, but there is also hope and a position of rooting for the protagonist as she goes on her painful journey that she will find a happy conclusion. Regardless of how the reader may feel about the picture book, one cannot help but engage with this beautiful text.