If you read up on these kinds of things, you’ll already have been aware that the Hugo Award nominees for 2010 have been announced. Among them the name ‘Shaun Tan’ sits merrily, in the category of ‘Best Professional Artist’ . And if you’ve been hiding under a different rock from the one Shaun Tan’s been propped on, he’s the artistic genius behind such books as Arrival, The Red Tree, and The Rabbits. I love them to bits.
But I have a confession to make. All those listed above are often marketed as children’s picture books. And I’m an adult.
Do you remember the first book you ever read (or had read to you)? There’s definitely an early one that imprinted itself on my brain: There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake. And sure, I know that partly the reason I have loved this book every time I have opened it since, is that nostalgia for my 80s childhood. Yet there’s another larger part of me that can’t even remember what the book’s about – it’s the illustrations themselves that continue to draw me in. At the ripe old age of 26 (newly turned) I am still in love with the pink and purple colour combination! Seeing pretty colours together in print gives me some sort of weird inner peace and I immediately feel calm, as if all is right with the world – such is the power of illustration.
Shaun Tan himself is a master at wielding the power– his pieces are often dark and disturbing. Consider his use of colour in The Rabbits (written in collaboration with John Marsden). It’s a dark yet sensitive story about colonisation from the perspective of the ‘colonised’. The twist is that the colonisers are bunny rabbits.
The Rabbits cover itself could be interpreted by a number of perspectives: the preschooler (happy, bright reds and blues), the agonised teenager (colours of rage and oppression), or the professional art critic (colonial imperialism, environmental destruction and cultural discord)! Even Mr Tan himself believes that his picture books are intended mostly for an older audience. In ‘Picture Books: Who are they for?’, Tan comments:
We [all] like to look at things from unusual angles, attempt to seek some child-like revelation in the ordinary, and bring our imagination to the task of questioning everyday experience. Why are things the way they are? How might they be different?
…But is this an activity that ends with childhood, when at some point we are sufficiently qualified to graduate from one medium to another? Simplicity certainly does not exclude sophistication or complexity; we inherently know that the truth is otherwise. “Art,” as Einstein reminds us, “is the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way.”
In response to anyone who believes an imagination is ‘children only’ domain, I would argue that imagination never stops. An ‘innocent’ imagination transforms into a ‘critical’ imagination with age and experience, giving us the ability to explore abstract concepts and see them as capable of many meanings.
Having said all this, I don’t even want to PRETEND to think that there’s some ‘hidden meaning’ to that purple hippopotamus on the roof eating the pink cake. I think it’s a safe bet (though I could be wrong!) that for the little girl in the story, there really was a hippopotamus on the roof. And that’s it. If I probed very deep with my ‘psychology fingers’, there might be something to be said about the wider human need to create invisible friends to be different, or to be understood, or to never be alone. But really, my attraction to the book can be witnessed through the lullaby rhythm of the words and the pink and purple pictures. Plain and simple.
A continuous look back to the picture books of your early years, similar to the study of academic history, can reveal new things each time. To me, it’s the truest magic you can find in this world – a fantasy in reality, you might say. Perhaps for you, it will be a gentle meditation on a childhood lived. Perhaps it will reveal something about the person you are now. But if all you feel like seeing is the happy colours and playful words, then that’s ok too. No adult, no matter how old, smart or busy they are, should lose the urge to play.