Review Blog

Nov 02 2015

The singing bones by Shaun Tan

cover image

Foreword by Philip Pullman. Allen & Unwin, 2015. ISBN 9781760111038
(Age: 8 to adult) Highly recommended, Grimm's fairytales, Sculpture. A foreword by Philip Pullman sets the scene. He would rather see the stories of the Grimm Brothers presented without illustrations, than repeat the soft and pretty images of books in the past. But seeing Tan's sculptures of the grotesque and weird creatures, he is satisfied that here is someone who is able to reveal these tales for what they are.
With that forward in mind, opening this beautifully presented book of Tan's sculptures set alongside excerpts from each of seventy five tales, is quite mesmerising.
Dipping in I found some favourites: Brier Rose, Six Swans, Snow White, The Juniper Tree and so on, while I came across some I have not heard of: The Three Snake Leaves, The Bearskin, The Lettuce Donkey to name a few.
Each story is presented in a few paragraphs, and the facing page has a stunning photograph of Tan's sculpture about that story.
Amongst the many which stand out for me is Rapunzel. The brief outline tells us of this beautiful young girl having to let her hair down for the sorceress to enter the high tower. The long slim piece of clay stretches skyward, and only the small round face on top shows us that this is Rapunzel, her hair falling straight down to the ground. What sorrow and imprisonment is shown in this tiny image. No Disneyfied young woman with luxuriating tresses leaning out of her window for the handsome prince below, only a girl detained without hope of escape. Bearskin was a story I had not heard before, so I read a complete version in my Maurice Sendak copy of Grimm's Tales (The Juniper Tree, 1973) to find out about a soldier who while good at fighting has no way of supporting himself during peace. Someone offers to support him for seven years but he must not cut his hair or change his clothes nor pray. The soldier eventually realises the devil is waiting for him to slip up and take his soul. An amazing story of courage and resilience, of temptation and honouring one's parents, Tan's sculpture looks like a piece of carved wood, with the soldier's face peering out from the enveloping bearskin. Readers will have lots to think about when looking at the little piece, wondering why it is presented in this way.
Grimm's Tales, so much a part of Western literature, exemplify the basic tenets underlying life, be they sins like greed or envy, or virtues like looking past appearance or honouring promises. These stories are given a different aura through Tan's work: his curious creatures will make readers think, setting aside illustrators of the past who have seen fit to gentrify them.
An introduction by scholar, Jack Zipes, gives a potted history of the Grimm Brothers and their work, and is followed by an extensive bibliography with summaries of the stories and words by Shaun Tan outlining the influences on his enigmatic work. A book to be savoured: one that will add a difference to any study of Grimm's Tales in the classroom.
Fran Knight

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