Reporting: Shaun Tan Shindigs (Part One)
Why I Will Never Be a Reporter
That’s easy. I don’t prepare properly. Some will tell you that good reporting requires a keen eye and an ability to separate yourself from the action around you. Others will say that good reporting comes from strong moral core and an ability to string words together in a way that is informative, accurate, and interesting. Fah, sayeth I. Reporting comes down to one thing and one thing alone: Your writing material. I’ve managed to convince myself over the years that pens are good things. They are your friends. You should not toss them aside when you’ve managed to scribble out the weekly grocery list, or kick them across the room after filling out a particularly gruesome tax form. I always keep three pens in my purse at all times. Pens are not my problem. Paper is my problem. And when you find yourself in one of the Scholastic buildings of New York City with author/illustrator Shaun Tan, you want a nice little notebook in which to write. Instead, I spent most of the evening scribbling illegible meanderings on a scrap of newsprint, using a wine glass as a hard surface. Fun Fact: Wine glasses make crummy hard surfaces.
Last week Scholastic held a lovely little party for Arthur A. Levine’s newest discovery, Shaun Tan. By "discovery" I sort of mean, "guy everyone knew about already in Australia while we here in America twiddled our thumbs". Back in February I got a glimpse of the Australian publication of The Arrival and I fell hopelessly in love with it. Suddenly I knew what it was like to be an editor. You trip over an artist’s work and then wait months and months, maybe even years, for the rest of the world to discover that person as you have. It must be agony.
In June I interviewed Mr. Tan on this site (here and here and here) and his eloquence was remarkable. For a man that can write a full novel without a single syllable, he certainly knows how to find just the right words and phrases in both interviews and on his website.
In person, Shaun Tan is unassuming. Just your everyday average normal guy. He’s one of those fellows that never speaks above a conversational tone, and yet can command an entire room with an off-handed comment. After mingling for a short time as I ate up all of Scholastic’s finger foods, Mr. Tan showed a slideshow of images relating to his own work and the creation of The Arrival. I will now attempt to decode my own notes.
First of all, much of Mr. Tan’s artistic work reminded me of Adam Rex. Mr. Rex has mentioned in the past that The Rabbits (a book Mr. Tan illustrated, with words by John Marsden) was a big influence on his current hit, The True Meaning of Smekday. Aside from the textual comparisons, however, they’ve complementary styles. It’s fun to compare and contrast the two.
Some interesting notes about The Arrival: Shaun Tan modeled the main character on himself, and gave the fellow a name. It’s Aki. Aki’s name never appears in the book (or rather, it never appears in a language that we would recognize) but it’s interesting to think that in a wordless novel, the creator would feel a need to give his main character a real name. As he has mentioned before, Raymond Briggs is a huge influence on Mr. Tan, and no wonder. When we consider The Snowman (arguably the world’s best known wordless picture book) it stands to reason that there would be people out there emulating him.
The two themes I’ve noticed cropping up in Mr. Tan’s work over and over are themes of suburbia and being the "other". Shaun Tan actually creates many paintings of suburbs in his own spare time, and he’s currently working on a book that may take place there as well. Not that the setting in The Arrival is anything but strictly citified. His urban architecture for the story relied heavily on New York skylines with buildings containing Japanese and Adobe influences. These cityscapes are then meant to evoke mixed reactions. Like all cities, he wants to give you the sense that there is both good and bad lingering here. His storytelling, on the other hand, took its cue from Italian films, particularly The Bicycle Thief. I asked him later if The Cabinet of Doctor Calgari played a hand in any of the flashbacks, but was told that it did not.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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