Rules of Summer: Author Shaun Tan's 2014 BGHB PB Honor Speech

tan_rules of summerThank you very much for this fantastic honor, and for an award that so generously includes far-flung Australians such as myself, currently ten thousand miles away and probably asleep, or else unsuccessfully trying to settle a teething infant. It never fails to amaze me how books can travel, find an audience, and touch imaginations across vast oceans and even larger tracts of history and culture, particularly those books that begin life as silly ideas that rarely constitute good public conversation (which is why so many of us turn to writing and painting, I guess). Somehow, statements such as “I wonder what happens if you sell your own brother to a bunch of ravens” never seem to find a sufficient opening in any normal, everyday, non-psychiatric context. Although, I notice kids have a fair ear for it, and perhaps this is what unites so many of us adults around the tolerant glow of children’s literature, where certain things are discussed when we should really be discussing certain other things, like war and politics. But maybe we can do both, in a roundabout way. So again I put it to you: “What happens if you sell your own brother to a bunch of ravens?” Surely it’s a relevant question.

When a book wins any prize, the first thing most people want to know is simply what it’s about. That’s tricky, because I’m never entirely sure what my stories or images really mean. In fact, that’s how I know if they are any good! There’s a certain thing that most artists are searching for, regardless of medium; a certain kind of transcendence even from their own understanding; a recognition that life in all its minute detail is mysterious. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in the relationship between two people, and the closer that relationship becomes, the more intense the mystery. Rules of Summer is based largely on memories of my own childhood, much of it spent with my older brother in Western Australia. Of course our personal history is far less tumultuous than the one represented in my book — we never really had fights like the two boys in my story — but, to paraphrase Picasso, art is the lie that reveals the truth. By exaggerating the undercurrent feelings of my childhood, and making them absurdly disproportionate, I was hoping to get close to a kind of truth, the “invisible reality” that all readers are looking for. Even if my pictures of giant rabbits, tornadoes, urban fish, strange cat-men, and half-finished robots are bewildering, the emotions and memories they provoke are quite real: fear, delight, jealousy, forgiveness, and a kind of pervasive uncertainty about the world that we are still, as adults, trying to grow up within. What’s around the corner? For all our wisdom and experience, we really don’t know. We have a lot more growing up to do. Even the smallest of little brothers or sisters can tell us this with utmost confidence — once we’ve rescued them back from the ravens.

Many thanks to Arthur Levine and his wonderful team at Scholastic, with a shout-out to Sheila Marie, Emily, and Phil. You probably already know that Arthur is such a wonderful guy, an astute and sensitive editor, much better than myself at giving speeches, and can also do a pretty good Australian accent, too — no worries at all. Such a pleasure to work with on all counts. Thanks also go to my Australian publisher, Hachette, in Sydney and to my long-term collaborator Helen Chamberlin, who commissioned my very first work back in 1996, when everyone else worried I might be too weird (and hopefully still do!). And, of course, huge appreciation to many people I have never met, all the teachers, librarians, booksellers, reviewers, academics, and other enthusiasts, without whom all our books would float in the dark like asteroids, only hoping to collide with an occasional reader. Instead they are magically turned into beacons of light. And with that illumination in mind, final thanks to the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award committee, whose task of judging among equally brilliant apples, oranges, grapefruit, bananas, and so on is not one to envy, though I do appreciate your penchant for antipodean strawberries. Warm greetings from Melbourne, and I wish you all a wonderful evening of strange and interesting things.

For more on the 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB14. Read Shaun Tan's 2008 Boston Globe-Horn Book Special Citation Award speech for The Arrival.

Shaun Tan

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