It’s impossible to write about Australian children’s literature without considering at least one picture book by award-winning author/illustrator Shaun Tan. Tan grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia, and currently resides in Melbourne. He’s been involved in the creation of 15+ books, several of which have been translated into different languages and published to international acclaim.
With so many weird and wonderful Shaun Tan books to choose from, I’ve decided to take a look at one of his more recent titles, Rules of Summer. Let me preface my thoughts by saying that unlike my very talented Book Wars colleagues, I am not an academic, and my approach to children’s literature tends to be more practical, rather than theoretical. For a more in-depth look at Rules of Summer, definitely take a look at this post by our very own Chris Owen, who looked at five different Tan books over five days. Whereas Chris looks into what Rules of Summer might mean, I’m going to bypass meaning entirely, and look instead at how you might want to use this nearly-wordless picture book with students in your classroom or library setting.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat – this book is weird. Like, really, really weird. It’s nearly wordless, the only text being a list of vague rules, including:
never ask for a reason
never be late for a parade
never wait for an apology
OK, the rules sound fair enough, I guess….until you take a look at the illustrations….
Woah! What the heck is up with the giant demonic rabbit?!?! Shaun Tan certainly doesn’t tell us. Read as a conventional picture book, Rules of Summer is one hot mess. The text doesn’t match the pictures, there’s no recognizable story line, we have no idea who/where/what the characters are, and it all ends suddenly, without having explained just about anything.
This book makes no sense!
And that’s what makes it such a great classroom/library text.
Remember how much you hated having to interpret texts in English class? The teacher always encouraged you to be imaginative, to think outside the box, then marked your interpretation as incorrect because Wordsworth was actually talking about the fleeting nature of youth, not the inevitable destruction of the planet by aliens (and how do you know that, Mrs. Thompson? Absence of proof is not proof of absence!)
Because it’s so remarkably weird, Rules of Summer can be interpreted in just about any way a student might imagine, opening itself up to all sorts of creative explanations and encouraging readers of all ages to challenge themselves and their creativity.
One way to explore Rules of Summer with a group is through a journal exercise. Ask students to imagine themselves as one of the characters in the story, and to journal their summer experiences. For example:
My brother has doomed us all. By not following the Rules he has unleashed upon us the terror that is Flopzilla, the big-eared, hopping god of carroty destruction….
How could I have known that eating the last olive would bring about the dreaded birdpocalypse?
Younger students might only write a few sentences for each illustration, while older students could create more complex narratives. Tan’s illustrations certainly lead themselves to some pretty imaginative interpretations….
Another idea is to have students create their own books of summer rules. Working independently or in a group, students write and illustrate a list of summer rules. An interesting twist on this activity would be to have students illustrate each others rules – it could be a real hoot to see how the children interpret their classmates’ ideas.
One of the great things about Rules of Summer is that is can work so well as a creative prompt with students of all ages and abilities. As Tan himself writes,
And it’s clear that older readers, including you and me, remain interested in the imaginative play of drawings and paintings, telling stories, and learning how to look at things in new ways. There is no reason why a 32-page illustrated story can’t have equal appeal for teenagers or adults as they do for children. After all, other visual media such as film, television, painting or sculpture do not suffer from narrow preconceptions of audience.
This weird, joyful, frightening, wonderfully unconventional book is so exciting because it acts as a springboard for readers’ imaginations. These simple rules and strange illustrations defy easy explanation, and can be interpreted in as many different ways as there are different readers. No one interpretation is more valid or authentic than any other, and readers are encouraged to propel their imaginations into new and exciting realms. Encourage your students to think outside their boxes, to explore new ideas, and to have fun – don’t ask your students to try to make sense of Rules of Summer, because that’s really not the point. Embrace the madcap, thrill in the unpredictability, and allow your students to let their imaginations run wild.