Written and Illustrated by Shaun Tan
Arthur A Levine Books, 2013
This is what I learned last summer: Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.
The plot in a nutshell: A boy shares the lessons he learned during a summer with his older brother
The brothers play together all summer and the younger brother makes a few mistakes, which are shown in the pictures and rules. Some of these mistakes seem to be small and others seem to have more dire consequences. Eventually, the two brothers get into a fight. The younger brother loses and is locked away. But the big brother comes to rescue him and they go home, where they end the summer sitting on a couch, surrounded by pictures of the things they did and saw during the summer. Author/illustrator Shaun Tan grabbed me right from the cover of this book, but nearly lost me on the first read-through, when I found myself looking for a cohesive plot and trying to make sense of this extremely unusual book. It took reading it a second time to really get it. And the basic plot line I listed above may not even really be what he intended, because the whole book is just a list of the rules with accompanying pictures that illustrate the rule’s importance.
The artwork is fascinating, bizarre and, at times, frightening. The full page pictures look like paintings you would see in a museum of modern art and coming up with the rest of the story of each picture, especially when connecting it with the associated rule, becomes really entertaining. At the end of the book, the fact that the boys are sitting happily together in a room filled with pictures of all the unusual creatures we see in the other picture may lead you to assume that everything in the book existed only in their imaginations. It’s a strange and beautiful book that I found thought-provoking and enjoyable, but I would caution parents to look through it yourself before deciding if it’s right for your child, as some of the images do seem a little too intimidating for younger kids.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there are always rules and, no matter how strange they are, it’s usually best to follow them.