Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

A review by Nalini Haynes

I love and adore Shaun Tan’s work. If I had the opportunity, I’d save and frame his napkin and envelope doodles, framing them for posterity like Picasso’s work. Possibly Shaun’s best-known work, The Lost Thing book and short film, are adorable, narrated by someone sounding remarkably like Shaun himself: humble, unpretentious and entranced by the magical in our world. I was energised to write a rave review of the recent ACMI Lost Thing exhibition but I wasn’t allowed to take even one photo to illustrate my love of the exhibition installation.

Last week the Rules of Summer, an award-shortlisted hardcover children’s picture book by Shaun Tan, arrived for review. I squeed with delight.

Rules of Summer is a delightful story of two little boys told primarily with pictures, one painting to one or two pages. Even the pages that have text on them – one sentence per page – are beautifully textured and coloured, a little like remnants from a children’s drawing session.

At first the story seems a little like Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, a collection of thoughts illustrated for publication, but Shaun’s pictures – worth a thousand words – speak of two boys who have an adventure. The climax of the tale is told without words, returning to a form of dialogue or narrative for the dénouement.

Some of the paintings in Rules of Summer will be familiar to Shaun Tan fans but there are other paintings I haven’t seen before. To my knowledge the paintings I haven’t seen before haven’t been used in a story before.

Shaun’s use of colour and shape is remarkable. Images appear deceptively simple at a glance, only to reveal more detail to the lingering eye. Shaun’s previous story-telling – books like The Arrival – demonstrate his skill in telling stories with images. Although there is some text in Rules of Summer, the pictures again tell the story.

Rules of Summer is a book for parents and grandparents to ponder with children, exploring the meaning of the images, exploring the story told without words. Rules of Summer is a classic for children of all ages, for art lovers, for fantasy fans, you name it. Every time I read it, Rules of Summer surprises me with more detail.

★★★★★ five out of five stars