Rules of summer by Shaun Tan

cover image

Hachette, 2013. ISBN 9780734410672.
(Age: 7 to adult) Highly recommended. Picture book, Summer, Art perspectives, Childhood. The rules of engagement between friends and siblings are often arbitrary, changing on a whim, but sometimes having a strong reason at their base. In this book, Tan presents those rules between two boys over one summer. Many pages are very dark, reflecting the cautionary tales of the past, where rules are given to warn of the possible repercussions of an action while some are light hearted, some simply reflect the relationship between the two.
Tan shows the two boys, one older and bigger, fencing the behaviour of the other with his short, pithy rules. 'Never', begins each page, telling of a rule which must be followed. Never forget a password, never give your keys to someone else, never leave the door open at night, and on they go, the pages darkening as more gloomy backgrounds fill the boys' days.
And it seems that some of the actions by the older boy are questionable, scrapping with the younger boy on the ground, leaving him shut in a furnace, only to return with bolt cutters, one of the 'always' rules that begins to grace the lightening pages.
With nods to the work of Jeffrey Smart, Dali, and Van Gogh, Tan brings his own imaginative powers to hie illustrations, adding futuristic themes with space vehicles and robotic dinosaurs, fantasy in the form of pages of all seeing birds, humour with the tennis match against a mechanical toy and wonder at the scope of summer's produce. Each double page with the words on the left and an illustration on the right, will draw gasps of recognition, fear, pleasure and, humour as he plays with our emotional responses to such imagery.
The older boy is at worst a bully, but could simply be teaching a younger brother the way around the neighbourhood, at the end sitting with him on the couch, sharing popcorn while watching television, redeeming himself for his actions of the past.
On Tan's website is a most informative series of video clips outlining his thoughts and sketches, his ideas and paintings for this work.
As with much of his work, children and adults alike will spend time looking and thinking, while in the classroom, lessons could be developed around the themes, friendship, rivalry, neighbourhoods, using the set of comprehensive teacher notes to be found on the website above.
Fran Knight