“Never break the rules. Especially if you don’t understand them.”
– Shaun Tan, Rules of Summer
Congratulations! You have made it to the fifth and final day of “Five Days with Shaun Tan!” If you are a university student like me, then it doesn’t actually matter that today is Friday as your summer is just beginning. I have always hated summer (despite my July birthday). To be honest I’m a huge nerd, so summer has always felt like little more than an unnecessarily long wait. I never know what to do with myself in the summer, if only I had some rules to guide me… Oh wait, what’s this?! It’s a segue for me to talk about Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer (2013)!
Tan’s latest picture book is about two boys, one that knows the rules of summer, and one that does not. Like previous works of Tan’s, this picture book has no coherent narrative. Instead rules are stated, rules that don’t seem to make any sense whatsoever, and then with each rule is an image that presents the serious (potentially life-threatening) need for each rule to be followed. For example, one rule of summer is “never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” Now this rule, when only read, seems very strange and ridiculous, but when it is accompanied with this image, it is a rule that clearly needs to be followed:
This is the first rule in the book and is quite an intimidating image. While other rules are just as, if not more frightening or worrisome, others are a little more playful. For example the rule “never be late for a parade” comes with this image:
The consequence for being late for a parade is only missing the parade, not so bad, pretty obvious. However, the consequence for eating the last olive at a party is, based on this picture, probably death:
Later in the picture book, one of the rules is “never ask for a reason” which is followed by a picture of the two boys fighting each other, who have thus far been presented as a team. This is then followed by “never lose a fight” and “never wait for an apology.” The young boy is locked in a train-like machine and for several pages the train and boy travel alone out of the city and into the cold night until the older boy shows up to free him with bolt cutters, the rule being: “always bring bolt cutters.” This is the only point in the picture book that there begins to feel like there is any sense of story, and when the boys make it home the picture book begins to slowly get more and more positive and cheerful until it suddenly ends with the line “that’s it.”
That’s it. Those are the rules of summer. That seems to be all this picture book has to offer. For some (perhaps many), this picture book can be seriously unsatisfying. The rules are not applicable and thus the picture book has neither use nor sense. It is then about nothing but the horrible pains and struggles of a small child in a cruel and unusual world that they don’t understand.
I bet a lot of children feel like the world is cruel, strange and confusing. I bet a lot of children feel like adults impose rules on them that don’t make any sense to them, and yet the consequences of not following these rules can mean severe punishment. Perhaps this picture book captures the essence of what the process of being raised and socialized is like.
If The Arrival can give a person who is neither an immigrant nor a refugee some insight on what it is like to be either, then perhaps Rules of Summer can give some reminder on what it is like to be a child. This picture book functions on two levels then, it is a story that children can identify with on an abstract level, and a story for older readers to reflect on and think critically about. In this way, I believe that Rules of Summer is the very definition of cross over fiction, a text that can be read and appreciated by children and adults alike.
Ps- good news, Rules of Summer finally became available in North America yesterday! Get your copy now!
And that concludes “Five Days with Shaun Tan!” Thank you so much to everyone who read and supported this series. Shaun Tan’s works are absolutely beautiful and are able to speak to so many feelings and issues on a variety of levels. As a whole I feel these works, despite their striking differences, all call for a need for hope. Hope for lost things and lost people, hope for the sad and depressed, hope for immigrants and refugees, hope for our society, for humanity, for our children. I also feel like each reader of these books may take something unique away with them; reading Shaun Tan is a personal experience, and can personally effect each reader in their own unique way. That is what art does, it connects with our souls and makes us feel. When I read Shaun Tan I feel hope. What do you feel?