The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016
My most memorable previous experience of Shaun Tan’s work was the surrealist graphic novel The Arrival; a touching, wordless tale of an immigrant arriving in an unfamiliar place. The art and story together have a powerful impact in showing the universality of what it means to be a stranger arriving in a strange land, using unique images to communicate what words are unable to. The Singing Bones is completely different, but it also expresses universality using images with a powerful visual impact.
The Singing Bones has an introduction by author Neil Gaiman and a foreword by fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, clues that the reader is in for a fascinating tour of the Grimm brothers’ tales. Tan pairs snippets from stories by the Grimm brothers with photographs of minimalist sculptures based on the stories. The sculptures were influenced by the styles used by Inuit and Pre-Columbian people. and are mainly made out of paper mache, found objects, and clay, primarily in red, black, and white. Each is presented in a double-paged spread, with the story snippet on the otherwise blank left hand page and the photograph of the sculpture it inspired on the right. The lines and curves in the sculptures are clean and uncluttered. Some sculptures represent the story fully– the one devoted to “Rapunzel” could be a tower, or a girl, or both. Others show a single moment– the one for “The Frog King” depicts the frog’s head poking out of circular ripples at the moment just before he would have spoken to the princess. The first look is not enough; while the sculptures may seem simple, reading the snippets and spending time looking at the photographs of the sculptures reveals that there is a lot to see in what might seem like uncomplicated objects. Be advised that these are not Disneyfied stories; Tan includes the story “Mother Trudy”, which has a very unpleasant ending for the child protagonist. There’s a very primal, visceral feel to the experience of going through these pages. The photographic spreads are followed by an explanation by Tan of the process used, and then by an index that fully summarizes the Grimm’s tale associated with each sculpture.
I discovered this book in the children’s section of my library, and I’m not sure it belongs there. As an art book and an exploration of Grimm’s tales, it is outstanding, but in a very nontraditional way, and I think many adults would really enjoy it. However, while my nine year old was enchanted by it, it also gave her nightmares, and required considerable discussion and research as a follow-up. It was a good experience for us together, but would have been difficult for her on her own. I can highly recommend it for elementary-aged and middle school children with an adult as a read-and-share title, and as a stand-alone title for ages 14 and older.