11 May 2017
I read a couple of Shaun Tan’s books when I was younger and my only thought on them was: wow these pictures are so weird and cool. A good 11 years later, I happened to pick up one of Shaun’s books the other day thinking the same thing. I read Rules of Summer and now my older self sees something in these pictures of a deeper and maybe even darker meaning. Not just something that is cool and weird. Most of this book is hand drawings with a single line of text. Each picture has two little kids in them, and each line of text presents a ‘rule’ of society. A rule that these kids learned during last summer.
It is written in first person which begs the question: are the little kids narrating? Which little kid? Or is it the author? My first guess would have to be the author. I believe Shaun wrote and illustrated this book based on events that he has been through but then encoded it in a vague “rule about summer” with an intricate and intelligent drawing.
The two kids are never given any sort of name or title and they barely have faces. This fact makes me believe that they are just a sort of avatar, a way to convey consciousness through a body. They aren’t given a specific gender. They are not stated as humans and their ages are never told. You can think of them how ever you want because they don’t actually matter, it’s just their presence to convey meaning that matters. It’s all up to the reader’s interpretation.
An example of this is one page “never eat the last olive at a party”. This line by itself is just self-explanatory. But is it? This 'rule' accompanied by a dark-toned illustration. The illustration is set in a dark yellow forest. It has both kids next to a long, near empty dinner table with only a couple of empty plates. One of the plates has a single olive on it. One of the kids is reaching for the olive while the other is trying to stop him. Surrounding the kids and the table is a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of human-sized hawks. Their eyes are big and piercing and they are all staring at the kid reaching for the olive. The colour pallet for this drawing is very dark and harsh with dirty browns, yellows and oranges. It’s quite a menacing and dark image, to be honest, comes across as intimidating. Now as I said, you can take this for how it looks, but I am suspicious of his choice of large hawks. Hawks are known for their spectacular eyesight, and they are depicted in this drawing as huge beings with even bigger eyes. They look judgemental, angry and way more powerful than the kids. A strange thing about this picture is the two kids are dressed the same as the hawks, yet differently from how they are dressed in the other illustrations. In all the other illustrations they are drawn wearing simple shorts, pants and a T-shirt. But in this picture, the kids and hawks are in suits. This may be a representation of a formal event or something very important.
Another consideration is the colours used in the picture. I feel like the memory or event this illustration represents is a sad or dark one because the colours are so dark and dirty. I think this picture is meant to represent how a lot of people can fall into a trap of conformity. They can be influenced to think that being exactly the same as the person next to them will help them succeed. And doing anything out of the norm is appalling and wrong. The “never eat the last olive at a party” is a clear gesture to not do something that the majority think is wrong or bad.
Another page I would like to talk about is a page with the rule “never ask for a reason”. Its illustration is quite weird even for Shaun Tan. It has the two kids fighting in the middle of the page. One is on top of the other with their fist raised and the other one looks like they are trying to defend themselves from the strike. Now this page is totally focused on the fight. Shaun has only drawn colour here. A dark colourless circle is formed around the fight, with all the weird creatures watching. All the creatures look serious, apart from a few, who look distressed or shocked. After examining the picture for a while you can notice finer details about the creatures around them. They are very still and almost lifeless. They seem frozen, helpless, which makes me think that these kids are important to them. I believe the kids are some sort of leaders to these characters or the kids even created the creatures. If the kids did create these creatures, then that would explain their frozen almost lifeless appearance in this scene.
In conclusion, I believe Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer is much more than a mere picture book for small children learning to read. It is a big book of major symbolism and complicated thought. I applaud Shaun for such a complex and interesting book.
[Teacher's note: Zacary is in the student-led reading for life program; teachers guide and facilitate only. Each student reads a number of novels, of their choice, and negotiates a response with their teacher. The aim of the program is to develop literacy. The key to literacy is reading development. Today, a difficulty many students face is a motivation to read. Helen Perez]