Review: Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer
By Anne Malewski
Rules of Summer is a treasure hunt. The clues: two simple framing sentences, 16 puzzling one-sentence rules starting with “never” or “always” and a set of surreal illustrations of two boys in various situations. From this, readers may run in frustration (some reviewers have) or they may construct a map of hidden meanings that is partly Tan’s and partly their own.
Shaun Tan is known for creating complex picturebooks with evocative illustrations and few words (or, indeed, no words at all). Rules of Summer continues Tan’s visual language of mysterious landscapes, objects and beings, including the dinosaur shapes that stem from a childhood obsession with tracing dinosaur pictures, but is less cluttered than some of his other work. As Tan is incredibly articulate about picturebooks as an art form and his work in particular, we know that, to him, Rules of Summer is about a relationship between brothers, the arbitrariness of rules and the discrepancy between emotional experience and what can be described via language. We know that Tan considers it to be a sort of sequel to The Red Tree: while The Red Tree explores “the strangeness of an individual’s inner life”, Rules of Summer portrays “the strangeness of any close partnership – it cannot be adequately explained to the third party”. However, we also know that Tan is reluctant to prescribe meaning and, instead, encourages readers to interpret his work freely through “slow reading” and their own imagination. Thus, the author is alive (and eloquent) but there is no one correct way to dig (or read) for treasure.
Accordingly, the title has no definite article and the layout provides space to think. Apart from a few wordless double spreads, the picturebook has a one-sentence rule on scrap paper on the verso and one illustration on the recto that implies vastness through its perspective and its method. Choosing to draw in oil on canvas rather than, for instance, in water colour on paper, Tan gives his illustrations the scope of paintings. Furthermore, the supposedly serious, heavy medium of oil painting lends weight to both the light and dark moments of this summer.
To me, this picturebook is about the adventures lurking behind broken rules, the delights of inventing language for idiosyncratic experiences and that wild freedom of childhood summers that somehow was elusive (and imaginary) even when I was younger. Perhaps it is about rules in intimate relationships, perhaps it is about rules of childhood. Perhaps the giant red rabbit is scary, perhaps it is scared of a red sock. Perhaps the jars are for fireworks, perhaps for shooting stars, perhaps for sky jellyfish. Perhaps the prison-like den is made of emotions, perhaps it is made of steel, perhaps it is a half-sentient steelpunk sauna. Perhaps the way home leads through a post-apocalyptic or post-war landscape, perhaps it leads through a junkyard. The rules may have been made by the taller boy or they may be the general rules in place where they live. Each possibility of interpretation is so exciting that I refuse to pin down meanings. Which does not make this book any less meaningful for me. If you can stomach ambiguity, mystery and multiplicity of meanings, Rules of Summer is a book full of treasure. Otherwise, you may read it literally, in which case the prison-den may remind you of a furnace only and, thus, narrow the book down to one horrible meaning or you might not find any meaning in the book at all. I, for one, am head over heels. Also because it makes me wonder about my rules of summer.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.