Summertime Lessons

It’s summer and school vacation time here in the Northern Hemisphere.  In Australian author/illustrator Shaun Tan’s ‘neighborhood,’ though, December through February are the warmest months, bringing students their long school vacation.  Regardless of this geographical difference, both Tan and the Canadian duo of author Mariko Tamaki and illustrator Jillian Tamaki have just published immensely satisfying books that focus on important life lessons young people learn during their school-free months.  Some lessons seem obvious and immediate, while the meaning and ramifications of others will unfold more slowly . . . perhaps over years or even the course of a lifetime.  Tan’s picture book Rules of Summer  (2013; 2014) and the Tamaki cousins’ graphic novel This One Summer (2014) are also similar in successfully appealing to a specific, identifiable age group while simultaneously providing older readers our own joys in these vibrant works.

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Rules of Summer, produced in Tan’s favorite medium of oil paints, is awash in color.  Its mysteriously unspecified settings veer from the hot, bright colors of sun-drenched days on Australia’s lush shores to the cool blues of twilight.  Some twilight and even daytime scenes are set not outdoors in nature but in frequently ominous cityscapes, muted pastels revealing looming buildings; mechanical, robot-like figures; and impossibly gigantic rabbits, crows, and cats—some nattily attired in suits. These imaginary landscapes, as Tan explains on the book’s website     http://www.rulesofsummer.com.au/#!home and his comprehensive author site http://www.shauntan.net/ , draw upon both his own childhood in the suburbs of coastal Perth, Australia and the industrial cityscapes of Melbourne, where he now lives and works.  All are put into play to depict the “rules” deduced by a young boy, seemingly seven to nine years old, as he plays with another, larger boy, possibly ten to twelve years old. 

They may be brothers or neighbors, but readers are free to interpret the characters’ evolving relationship—from tagalong closeness to ‘abandonment’ for another companion to possible imprisonment and then release or rescue, followed by reconciliation—as we wish.  This freedom is deliberately fostered by Tan, making his picture book satisfying for readers of all ages as well as the five to ten year-olds who are its apparent first audience.  Tan notes that “these very open ended kind of stories . . . don’t have necessarily the kind of structure or dynamic direction that you’ll find in novels or films or plays . . . art forms that have more of a linear or kinetic structure.”  Of Rules of Summer, Tan observes that “you can open it on any page and spend five minutes or an hour pondering the image, close the book and that would be a sufficient experience.”

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Tan’s picture book text is minimal, one centered sentence per page, phrased as adages that could apply to multiple situations, not just the mysterious image on the facing or subsequent pages.  Thus, after the first, ‘plot-setting’ sentence—“This is what I learned last summer:”—the author has his character figure out that it is better to “Never leave the back door open overnight” and “Never give your keys to a stranger.”  How exactly these rules apply to the fantastic garden and creatures that have overnight engulfed the narrator’s living room or, on another page,  the enormous, clothed cat that is now watching TV with the older boy, with the narrator peering sadly into the room, is not explained.  Close examination of that page reveals further ‘causes’ for the narrator’s sadness.  The cat seems right at home with the older boy, his gigantic shoes placed neatly alongside the boy’s and a photo or painting of the two hung on the wall.  Readers young and old will be relieved that, by “the last day of summer,” the boys are happily playing and watching TV together again, with crayoned drawings of their adventures decking out that living room wall.  Their relationship—complex, evolving and never truly articulated, is a model for many human relationships, at all stages of life.

Shaun Tan has won multiple awards for earlier works, including the 2011 prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for contributions to international children’s literature, and an Oscar awarded in 2011 for the animated version of The Lost Thing, originally an honored picture book.  (Attending the Oscar awards ceremony, as Tan reveals on his book’s website, is even related to one of the eerier pages in Rules of Summer!) Forward-thinking, Tan continues to engage with his audience in multiple ways.  There is now an “app” version of Rules of Summer, http://www.shauntan.net/books.html complete with musical score, available for purchased download for readers who want to experience or re-experience Tan’s work in this format.  The author/illustrator describes this app as “more than just an e-book . . . a unique work which took months of development.”

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Unlike Rules of Summer, Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer has a specific, realistic setting—one integral to its story of preadolescent girls’ slow, complicated growth towards adulthood.  The isolation of its wooded, lakeside cottage community has fostered the years-long summertime friendship of Rose, now about 12, and Windy, who Rose remarks is “one and one half years younger than I am.”  This difference in age is evident not only physically but emotionally: Rose develops an unvoiced crush on a teenaged convenience store clerk nicknamed “Dud” that younger Windy cannot comprehend, even as both girls are still childlike enough to share giggling, jiggling remarks about the possible future size of their undeveloped breasts. Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations here and elsewhere in the book are wonderfully paced and precise in evoking the rhythms of the pair’s interactions, both in speech and action.  She also deftly draws facial expressions that speak without words.  In interviews, the cousins have explained that it is Mariko who spent summers in an Ontario lakeshore community similar to the book’s fictional “Aswago Beach.”  Jillian, growing up in the more arid Canadian West, had to visit and photograph such communities as research before tackling this project.  The 300 page book took a year of full-time work to illustrate.  (It is also the Tamakis’ second project together; their first graphic novel Skim (2008) won multiple awards, including a 2009 YALSA accolade as a Great Graphic Novel for Teens.)            

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Aswago Beach is also home to adults and older teens whose lives Rose and Windy only half-apprehend.  The cause of the temporary rift between Rose’s parents—richly-conceived individuals whose voices and expressions are vividly portrayed by the Tamakis—is only revealed at the end of the novel.  The personality and depth of Jenny, the older teen girlfriend of Rose’s ‘crush’ Dud, also unfolds dramatically then.  Readers, depending on their maturity, will observe and understand some of the tensions experienced by background characters, including Rose’s visiting aunt and uncle and Windy’s adoptive mother, in ways that Rose and Windy do not.  Adult problems such as infertility, depression, and unwanted pregnancy swirl around the young protagonists, who also witness and successfully cope with an attempted suicide.  

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I do not want, though, to give a misleadingly grim picture of This One Summer, with its central focus on preadolescence, when some days seem to tick by incredibly slowly and boringly while other moments seem to last forever because of heightened emotions, such as Rose’s crush.  These rather uneventful situations—along with other, good-humored interactions, including dealing with the impact of sneakily-bought horror film DVDs —form the bulk of the book.  Conversations between Rose and Windy focus as much on their daily lives, often filled with jokes and high spirits, as they do on problems that affect them or those around them.  Mariko Tamaki’s story and dialogue are spot-on in capturing both sorts of emotions and casual interactions; Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations, including many wordless panels and others featuring only background sounds—are riveting often in enjoyable rather than disturbing ways.  And, of course, some preadolescent as well as adolescent experiences (such as beginning to hold different views than one’s friends) messily overlap such clear-cut categories.  Despite their differences, Rose and Windy’s end-of-summer meeting concludes on an upbeat note, with the two planning to get together again, and Rose together again, and Rose, playing with as well as munching on her licorice whip, deciding with great seriousness that “Boobs would be cool.”                      

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This One Summer—illustrated in ‘teen diary’ colors of shaded purple and cream—is a wonderful read, tender as well as tough, a pleasure to look at as well as to ponder.  It is also proof positive that life lessons are ongoing, acquired by adults as well as teens and kids, and that the rules of any one summer may need to be relearned or changed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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