The red tree by Shaun Tan
Simply Read Books, 2003

I unabashedly adore Shaun Tan. It should be noted that this was not the case before I read The red tree. Granted, I think his The arrival is a work of genius, but The red tree spoke to me so vividly that I would probably be struck dumb if ever I was lucky enough to meet him.

The premise of The red tree is simple: a young girl wakes up and "...the day begins / with nothing to look forward to / and things go from bad to worse,"* until the end of the day when something remarkable happens. The execution, however, is anything but simple: the illustrations are stunning and the text is spare and poetic. The phrases Tan uses get right to the point, from "nobody understands" to "sometimes you just don't know what you are supposed to do." Hopelessness, fear, and yearning permeate this day in the small girl's life.

The illustrations start out simply, with a depiction of the girl getting out of bed taking up about a fifth of the story's initial two-page spread. They do not stay simple however, and scenes straight out of a dark fantasy emerge. From desolate landscapes to massive mechanical dragons and ships in roiling seas, the small protagonist encounters a long sequence of unwelcoming environments. A lone red leaf is with her throughout her day, something that I did not catch until I read the book a second time.

Having read two of Shaun Tan's other books - The arrival (2007)and Tales from outer suburbia (2008) - it is fascinating to see how some visual elements from The red tree are also found in those books. For example, one of the earliest scenes in The red tree shows the girl with a large old-fashioned submarine helmet on her head, which is very similar to the helmet found on the cover of an edition of Tales from outer suburbia. While the human characters in The arrival are more realistic in their features, the alien space and objects in The red tree have similarities to the atmosphere in The arrival.

This is a book that is, arguably, for older students. While it is as dark as it is beautiful, I would not shy away from having it in an elementary library. However, I believe that older students, especially teens, would get a lot more out of The red tree. As an adolescent I remember often feeling hopeless, misunderstood, and like nothing good would ever happen to me, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many others would agree. The red tree is a beautiful, poignant book that I will purchase for the school libraries I manage, and a thousand thanks to my professor for the recommendation.

*Another unpaginated picture book! These lines are the first three lines of the book, but all other quotes in this review will not be given a page reference.


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