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befriend and eventually take the duck. Death is a smallish character, dressed in the frock of a young girl. Erlbruch’s character convinces as someone that is a bit macabre but at the same time sensitive and endearing. In The Big Question, Death, charmed by a bumblebee, is yet again a skeleton, this time dressed in a clown’s suit. A skeleton, normally used to depict a dead human being, has become Erlbruch’s personification of the grim reaper. By introducing gentle human attributes, his depiction of death is actually more convincing and closer to home (and thereby more ominous and chilling) than a generic evil-looking cloaked man would have been.


The work of Shaun Tan weaves his personal iconography – slightly surreal worlds that seem at the same time futuristic and retrospective – into rich narratives that never merely communicate on the surface. The subject matter as well as his meticulous and calculated illustrations make the informed reader aware of political (in the broadest sense of the word) commentary – be it Post-Colonial, Post- Industrial or raising an awareness of ‘The Other’. In The Lost Thing he depicts the main character as a geek-ish man with a nostalgic passion for collecting bottle caps who helps a lost thing to find a safe place in a hostile world. The thing is a creature that looks like something between an old boiler and an alien animal. The form of the narrative is a hybrid between a picture book and comic with the frames placed on pages of old technical handbooks. There is no plant in sight and the humans in the book seem like endless replicas of a tired and redundant prototype. If the reader considers this information, she cannot but ‘read’ a deep criticism of an industrialized society’s tendency to dehumanize, alienate and exclude. The Arrival, yet again a hybrid form – this time a silent narrative – also raises awareness of those who have arrived from elsewhere to find themselves lost in an alien and hostile environment. Even from the endpapers does it become clear that we have here a universal tale: rows and rows of small portraits reminding us of old ID or passport photographs of a large variety of ethnicities. This reference to identity and categorization sets the scene for a powerful and moving story. Tan’s earlier book with John Marsden, The Rabbits, confronts European, especially British, readers with their colonial


The Rabbits


history. Though neither Australia nor England is named per se, the sense of place created by Tan’s painting and the semiotic clues like a Union Jack-like flag; tea cups; rabbits and uniforms, to name but a few examples, leaves no doubt about the historical reference that underpins this picture book.


Whether we point out to young readers what the significance of colour and shape can be in the understanding of a picture book or whether us, older picture book aficionados set out to unravel a complex picture book, visual literacy is key. As much as one learns to read and gradually grows into an avid and intelligent reader, one can also learn to read a picture.


Books mentioned Little Red: The Exciting Story of a Boy, a Wolf and a Keg of Fizzy Beer, Lynn Roberts illus David Roberts, Pavilion Children’s Books, 978-1843650966, O/P Little Red Cap, Lisbeth Zwerger, North South Books, O/P Maus, Art Spiegelman, Penguin, 978-0734411365, £16.99 pbk Duck, Death, and the Tulip, Wolf Erlbruch, Gecko Press, 978-1877467172, £6.99 pbk The Big Question, Wolf Erlbruch, Europa Editions, 978-1933372037, O/P The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0734411389, £9.99 pbk The Arrival, Shaun Tan, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0734415868, £10.99 pbk The Rabbits, John Marsden, illus Shaun Tan, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0734411365, £7.99 Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, Susanne Janssen, S. Editions du Seuil. 2002


Piet Grobler is an award-winning picture book illustrator; joint course leader in Illustration at the University of Worcester and co-founder of the International Centre for the Picture Book in Society.


Books for Keeps No.220 September 2016 11


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