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Shaun Tan’s latest book has an interesting history, beginning when publisher Klaus Humann asked Tan to illustrate Grimms Märchen, fifty stories from the Grimms adapted and edited by Philip Pullman. The book had been previously published in the U.S., unillustrated, as Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, by Viking. For The Singing Bones: Inspired by Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Tan has added twenty-five new…well, not exactly illustrations and new…not exactly stories, either. See below.
Shaun Tan: I figured this was a chance to do my own Grimm book. At the same time I was thinking, I don’t want to do anything that competes with Philip’s book. I want to do something completely different. The Grimms’ tales are so ubiquitous — you can Google any of them and read the whole text. It wasn’t necessary for me to rewrite and publish another edition of these stories. I was playing around with the idea of captions, which is kind of the way I work anyway when I’m producing picture books. I try to distill stories down into little fragments. One of the touchstones throughout my career has been Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which I read as a kid. It might be one of the few picture books I wish I had thought of first.
RS: Yeah, it’s brilliant.
ST: So I thought of reverse-engineering Grimms’ fairy tales — what if I got rid of the stories and just took fragments [selected from Jack Zipes’s 1987 collection The Complete Fairy Tales] and did a Harris Burdick approach?
RS: Quite so. But there’s even less “storytelling” here. The sculptures are frequently abstracted, or on the way there. They look like icons.
ST: That’s right. They’re not even illustration, in a sense. I was influenced by Inuit art, which I have been ever since I did an extracurricular course on what was then called “Eskimo” culture and became obsessed with soapstone carving. I’ve been hankering to get back to some sort of carving, but as an illustrator working in a two-dimensional world, it never really comes up. What I love about Inuit carving is that it’s so narrative, but it doesn’t have the temporal dimension of an illustrated picture, where it feels like something happens before or after. Everything is happening in the sculpture, and you can hold the whole story in your hand. A lot of these sculptures are small enough that you can hide them in your hand completely so you’re not looking at them, you’re just feeling them. It’s a fascinating narrative mode that I hadn’t explored, and I wanted to try it.
RS: We recently did a podcast about cultural appropriation. In this case, here we have these stories from Central Europe. We have these sculptures inspired by Inuit art. And then we have you, Shaun, down there in Australia doing your thing. So it’s appropriation all over the place.
ST: Completely. I think as an Australian I’m used to that. Maybe you are, as an American, as well. There’s a sort of absurdity to Australia and the so-called New World nations. I sensed it all the time growing up in Western Australia, which is really remote. It’s an arid, semi-flat, windy, sandy, coastal plain exposed to this gigantic ocean. There’s nothing beyond it until you get to Africa, a huge distance away. And then there’s a desert on the other side. But all the stories I was raised on were British and European. Grimms’ fairy tales featured prominently, particularly as translated by Disney. We had the Christmas tree and the snowman — but no one had ever seen real snow. I never saw real snow until six or seven years ago.
ST: Yes. I painted a lot of illustrations with snow, but I’d never seen it.
RS: Where did you see finally see it?
ST: At Mount Buller, here in Victoria, where it does snow. More recently, I was able to see the Central European forest, because my in-laws moved to Switzerland. We went on these walks — the forest was so dense and dark and old. This was around the time I was working on The Singing Bones, and I suddenly understood what those Grimm stories are about. I really understood the fear of getting lost in the forest, the sense of wolves and bears being not so far away.
RS: Anything I read as a kid I imagined was set here in this New England landscape. It’s not that different from the landscape that the Grimms were writing about. I could easily make pictures in my head of what was happening. But how was it for you?
ST: I think I sort of started reading everything as make-believe. When these stories talked about kings and queens and princesses and so on, for me those were about as real as dragons or any other fanciful creatures. It was all so far away from my reference point. Maybe that’s why I’m quite liberal with cultural and stylistic appropriation. I’m already so disconnected from the origins of things that I feel it’s all equally up for grabs. These stories — the Grimms’ fairy tales, the stories from other places — still affected me deeply, even though all the trappings were completely foreign. And there’s also the fact that I grew up in a mixed-race family in a part of Western Australia where that was really uncommon.
RS: In Perth?
ST: That’s right. It’s very multicultural now, but at the time it was quite English. I always felt displaced as a kid. I didn’t have a lot of contact with extended family. My family kind of made up our own culture, in a sense. We were neither here nor there. Didn’t really know what we were. No particular religion or anything. So we just sort of fumbled along and made it up. My parents are not particularly literary, so there wasn’t as strong a sense of cultural history. A lot of my stories are kind of about that, about what people do when they don’t have much of a given culture. It could be why I’m so interested in picking stuff up like a magpie, because you’ve got to do something.
RS: And you had no structure you could use, particularly.
ST: I’m just playing with a theory here, but maybe everybody’s like that to some extent. We’re all living in a changing world. If I had grown up in Germany, say, at the time of the Grimms, there’s no way I would be so cavalier, stylistically, with the stories. I’d be like, “Well, the copse needs to be drawn like this and the forest looks like this.” But because I’m so mixed up, I think, well, what’s the difference? I might do it this other way. There’s a certain freedom there.
RS: What Grimm story haunts you the most?
ST: There are two. “The Juniper Tree” because it’s one of the most disturbing — I don’t know how well you know that story.
RS: That was the title story of the Sendak edition here in the seventies. He and Lore Segal, the adapter and translator, did not sweeten up anything. It was all very stark. Like your book, it has just one representational image per story. It changed the publishing of fairy tales for young people.
ST: That story in particular is extremely dark. The mother cuts off the stepson’s head and tricks her own daughter into thinking she’s decapitated her stepbrother.
RS: I’m looking at your illustration now as we talk.
ST: That’s a nightmare-inducing image — you touch your sibling and his head falls off.
RS: Do we have to put trigger warnings on your book?
ST: I reckon. It was very interesting reading through the Grimm stories. Many of them I hadn’t read before. You could never get this published now if you approached an editor and said, “I have a couple of stories I think people are going to like.” No one would want to touch them with a barge pole. Some of the tales can’t even be sanitized in the way that many others have been. The savagery and cruelty is so fundamental to the tale. There’s no point in telling it if you take those scenes out.
RS: “Hansel and Gretel,” which is the one that resonated most with me, is terrifying, but children seem able to handle it in a way that adults think maybe they can’t. Which is weird, because adults were all once children.
ST: That is very interesting. “Hansel and Gretel” is my favorite of the Grimms’ fairy tales. A lot of terrible things happen, but I can’t bring myself to see it as dark. There’s something so whimsical about it that balances things out. Maybe that’s why that tale has survived, because a truly dark tale doesn’t get retold as many times. It’s too depressing for the teller to relive.
RS: Right, everyone’s going to be like, “Oh, thanks,” and not want to pass it on. And “Hansel and Gretel” does, of course, have a happy ending.
ST: It does. But it’s also got enough prickles in it that you’re left with mixed feelings. That’s probably what, especially in oral tradition, gives a story longevity. You’re not repelled by the story, but you’re not quickly dismissing events as resolved. It sticks in your head because something’s still not right. In “Hansel and Gretel,” there’s a happy ending, but so much has happened.
RS: Look what the parents did to these kids. I mean, the dad went along with it all. And there he is at the end, “Come home, children. My wife is dead. You’ll be fine.”
ST: Plus they’ve been put in a situation where they had to murder somebody, so these kids have serious PTSD. It’s a somewhat inexplicable story, “Hansel and Gretel.” Why would somebody tell this thing? What’s the meaning that we’re meant to be getting? It’s not clear and you can’t summarize it, so it stays on. It’s like a dream, a really powerful dream. Some stones have been thrown into a pond, and the ripples keep going on and on. There’s still something moving under there, and you’re always trying to figure out what that is. You never quite get to the bottom of it. Telling it is like an itch that you want to scratch.
RS: Or sculpt?
ST: When I was first asked to create drawings for Philip’s book, I was concerned I would fall into the trap of illustrating things very literally. Sculpture stopped me from doing that, because it’s just too hard in that medium to do narrative scenes that are very detailed or involve a lot of facial expression. It’s quite laborious.
RS: Do you think you’ll do sculpture again for a book?
ST: It depends on whether it’s suitable. I feel as if I’ve been waiting decades to create sculptures for a book. I tried it with some of my other picture books. With The Arrival, believe it or not, the first concept was a series of sculptures. I had the idea of representing a city using recycled objects, to show a New World city created from Old World items refashioned, a miniature city that I could build physically, but it just wasn’t narratively relevant.
RS: Well, some of the creatures in here certainly look like they’d be at home in that book too.
ST: Some of my illustrations are of sculptures — there are these large totemic sculptures in The Arrival that are of native animals of the land. And I realize now that a lot of the creatures in the short animated film I did in 2010 [The Lost Thing] look very similar to the sculptures in this book. They’re the same kind of forms and shapes.
RS: You can grab culture all over the world, but you always come back to you, I guess.
ST: Yes, pretty much. Sometimes I get really self-conscious, looking at what appears on the page, like “Oh, not again.”
More on Shaun Tan from The Horn Book
- Review of The Singing Bones
- The Arrival: Shaun Tan’s 2008 BGHB Special Citation Speech
- Rules of Summer: Shaun Tan’s 2014 BGHB PB Honor Speech