The Red Tree. An Analysis of Shaun Tan's Luminous Work of Art




Shaun Tan's The Red Tree almost defies any rational classification. To the ear it reads as a sparsely written children's book, but to the eye the book's lavish depictions of isolation and despair require a much deeper analysis.


The basic story of a little girl having a particularly horrid day is not uncommon in children's literature. What separates this book from others of the same genre is Shaun Tan's wholly idiosyncratic artwork.


The slender story line depicts a young girl moving through a sequence of striking landscapes. The accompanying text is deliberately spare. The text often serves as a caption for the colour saturated pictures. In essence, each picture conveys a visual representation of an overwhelmingly, at times, depressed mood.


Despite the bleak illustrations, at the heart of the story is the message that hope springs eternal. Hope is characterized throughout by the shining beacon of a red leaf, that often flutters in the margins of Tan's austere landscapes.


Perhaps my favourite picture, is of the girl standing on a path that leads to a massive bird like mechanical monstrosity, that looms on the horizon. The girl holds in her hands a large dice that has what appears to be six on each side. The text reads, 'terrible fates are inevitable.'


The message of the six sided dice and the path leading inexorably to the monstrous bird is that perhaps chance and luck play no part in life, that there is only despair and impending disaster that awaits us. But, the little red leaf - that can be found only with difficulty - tells us a different tale. It tells us that there is always hope.


The red leaf's appearance makes a lie of the false notion that terrible fates are inevitable. The message of hope is given voice and its music is fully sounded in the final panel of the red tree, flowering in all its glory.


The Red Tree is a work of vast beauty and quiet power. To describe it as simply a children's book perhaps does it an injustice. Children's author John Marsden has described it thus, 'It is the best picture book I have seen. Shaun Tan has created a masterpiece.'


I use the book as a shared reading text for older students 9 - 14 years of age. Children with language impairment will tend to flick through the pages rapidly, reading the text as quickly as possible to make it to the finish line, as they do with most books.


I tend to hold my hand on each page to prevent them from doing this. The text and images do require a large helping of scaffolding to draw out the deeper themes. It's certainly worth the effort, as the students do find the book very interesting, once they are helped to unlock its deeper meaning.


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