I was a little bit excited about this book. Okay ... a lot excited. And when it arrived, the cover entranced me, as is the Masterful Tan Way.
Heart thumping, I sat to carefully turn each precious page. Glorious endpapers, fabulous title page, brilliant opening double page spread with not a shred of text -- only two young boys (one big, one small) whispering in a superbly-rendered, desolate, almost-post-Apocalyptic street.
Heart thumping visual brilliance.
Then the next double page spread ... these simple words ... 'This is what I learned last summer.'
Heart thumping harder over delectable text. It was love.
But perhaps love at first sight, for the next double page spread started toying with my mind. And not in a good way. My new love was being difficult. I quickly lost focus -- not on the exquisite and magical imagery of fantastical concepts and creatures, because that's a Shaun Tan given, but rather the crushing coupling of abstract text with abstract image in a way that instantly lost me.
And lo, I was heart broken.
There were pages considerably more lucid and therefore more impactful than others, but many were so discordant between image and text, even the deepest subtleties eluded me. As I fell into each luscious image, I found this discordance unsatisfying because the images were so utterly rewarding on their own. If I was looking for a full interpretative, existential experience, I would have much preferred Rules of Summer as a wordless text.
I'm all for cryptic storylines and abstract concepts and deep and interpretable meaning. I love love love to be forced to think -- but not until my brain hurts or I lose affection. Sure, Rules of Summer is beautiful. It harnesses emotion and plumbs the depth of right, wrong, brotherhood, cruelty, darkness, play and childhood fears. It certainly doesn't dumb it down for kids (something I abhor) but if a child can't get a grasp on a storyline, even on a subliminal level, what's the point?
Rules of Summer nonetheless is a beautiful exploration of relationships and the extreme vulnerability of children -- sometimes to an unsettling degree. I so appreciated it when Tan wove redemption, kindness and bonding into the book's ending. I also loved the surreal connection between the creatures that inhabited the book and the boys' drawings and paintings that feature on the walls of the last scene. This offers up some kind of resolution to the surreal mania -- that the fine line between imagination and reality can be so easily skewed in the very young.
This, to me, is a brilliant book for adults. The more I read it, the more the hidden subtleties rose to the surface and touched my heart -- and after the third or fourth read, I kind of fell in love with the book all over again, just as you would an enigmatic lover who screws with your brain and bats your heart around.
The imagery in this book is pure genius and has that magical quality both adults and kids adore. The visuals will delight children and even if there is inconsistent lucidity, Rules of Summer will make them wonder.
I'm still wondering. And perhaps that's a really good thing.
Title: Rules of Summer
Author/Illustrator: Shaun Tan
Publisher: Hachette, $24.99 RRP
Publication Date: 8 October 2013
Format: Hard cover
For ages: 6+
Type: Picture Book