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When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why Not?

For those students and teachers who began their summer vacation in May, starting another academic year is becoming a reality.  In the state of Michigan, school, by law, begins after Labor Day.  For guys and gals here more than a month of seasonal bliss remains.

For children (and adults too) the words summer and rules don't seem to go together.  Summer is a signal for requirements followed during the school year to be relaxed; alarm clocks are not set, uniforms or specific clothing are traded in for more comfort, a rigid schedule vanishes and schoolwork deadlines are set aside. In his April 2014 release, Rules of Summer (Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic Inc.), author illustrator Shaun Tan sets forth another viewpoint entirely.  What he purposes in text and illustrations will have readers mulling over in their minds for weeks or longer.

This is what I learned last summer:

The first rule begins with the word


followed by a request about leaving a particular article of red colored clothing on the clothesline.  On the opposite page to the right readers can see the results of disobeying said rule.  The older boy and his younger brother are crouching behind a tall fence together.  The first has his hand over the other's mouth.  On the other side of the barrier we see just enough of a gigantic red rabbit with a piercing red eye to give us the heebie-jeebies.

We read about table manners, care with glass, making sure everything is secure for the night, honoring even the tiniest and slowest of creatures, being on time, following a process, questioning authority, behavior around unknown beings, the importance of secrets, explanations, the value of winning and expecting to hear I'm sorry.  Each of these twelve rules is preceded by the word


The corresponding visuals reflect the bizarre, the fantastic, extreme adventure, forces of nature, steampunk and stark landscapes.  They unlike the text show a shift in the relationship between the two boys.  The older one is distancing himself from the other; his treatment becoming mean.  Is the elder sibling disgusted?  What is the purpose of his actions?  With the reading of each rule, the questions multiple.

After three two-page illustrations sans text the rules begin again.  The word never has been replaced with the word


The bond between the two boys changes swiftly.  We are told to carry a specific tool, be sure of the right directions to the right place and to


miss a significant moment in time.  The final two words of this conversation about the dos and don'ts of summer are accompanied by the most puzzling illustration of all.

Shaun Tan's single sentence rules without the illustrations sometimes state the obvious but other times one cannot help but think, Why not?  Regardless of this each paves the way for dynamic discussion.  His switching from the word never to always and back to never is sure to prompt additional inquiries.

Rendered in oil paint all the illustrations, including the matching dust jacket and book case, are open to interpretation.  Where is the field with the town off in the distance located?  Who are these two children?  What kind of place contains large wind-up creatures?  There is so much wonder even before the cover is opened.  The identical opening and closing endpapers show the two boys alone on an empty street cast in darkness either after sunset or prior to sunrise.  The oldest one is whispering something to the other.  The marvelous mystery commences.

The title page is mind-blowing; the oldest brother is taking off in some sort of hovercraft as the other runs across a green field carrying a suitcase.  Again the potential for possibilities is without end.  Each succeeding illustration challenges the limits of each reader's imagination.

Impeccable design and altered perspectives invite readers to pause.  Brush strokes on larger items and fine details are smaller elements contribute to create stunning visuals.  Careful readers will speculate about the presence of the crows in most of the illustrations.

Rules of Summer written and illustrated by Shaun Tan is a true mind-bender.  I would not hesitate to use this with students at the beginning of the school year to promote discussions about expectations, perceptions and of course, rules.  It would be interesting to see what images students would pair with each rule.  Do they agree with those of Shaun Tan?  You could have Rules of _____ as an exercise working in groups or pairs.

Another good point of discussion is the relationship between the brothers.    What would they do or not do if in the same situation as the characters in this book?  How do children feel about their siblings?

By following the link embedded in Shaun Tan's name you can access the page at his website devoted to this book.  He has written commentary about each of the illustrations.  The link embedded in the title leads to a website completely devoted to the book.  There are seven videos and an extensive teacher's guide.

This book is also reviewed by Travis Jonker, teacher librarian and blogger at 100 Scope Notes as well as Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird, New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist and blogger at A Fuse #8 Production.

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