Five minutes with Shaun Tan

Our recent exhibition showcased original artwork from Shaun Tan’s award winning picture book Rules of Summer.  The Perth born artist, writer, and illustrator reveals what he thought about your summer rules, and insights into the mysterious world depicted in the book.

“Never wash your cat” 

I like this one, because we kind of know it’s unnecessary or difficult to wash a cat, but it’s never spelt out, or the consequences discussed. It would be wonderful to see an image accompanying this, where a good and earnest gesture has gone terribly wrong: you were only trying to help the cat! Suddenly it owns you as a pet, has shrunk into a tiny demon, or grown fins and must be set free at the beach, turned to stone, melted, the possibilities are endless. How often has something more or less like this happened in real life? It reminds me of my wife’s story of collecting snow as a child, to make a snowman, from the bonnet of a neighbour’s car: innocent enough, until you realise she was using a snow shovel! Often it’s impossible to know you are making a mistake until you’ve already made it, and not just as a child. It all carries on into adulthood, common sense doesn’t always win.

Never Eat A Turtle

“Never eat a Turtle” 

This is a good one too, because it might draw attention to the arbitrary nature of the human diet. ie. It’s okay to eat tuna or octopus (both quite intelligent and beautiful animals), but we might bulk at dolphins or turtles. Historically, a lot of cultural taboos have revolved around certain foods, without the consequences explained fully. Perhaps in this case, you will become a turtle yourself, or have to carry your own bedroom on your back forever, or simply be known as a turtle-eater and banished from society – and you might never know why. Of course, the real reason is probably that turtles are so vulnerable to exploitation, with many already extinct or heading that way. So any rule that stops people from eating turtles is probably a good one, no matter how absurd it is.


Left: Never drop your jar, Oil on canvas, 2013 Right, Cat person, Never give your keys to a stranger, Oil on canvas, 2013

You grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth. The illustrations ‘Never drop your jar’ and ‘Never step on a snail’ convey a sense of summer heat which could be likened to the scorching Western Australian sun. What do you remember most about growing up in Perth?

Well certainly the heat and light. The jar-dropping scene comes from memories of rock fishing, which was the main past-time of my family during summer holidays, usually either along the northern coast or down in Margaret River, and it was usually pretty hot with little shelter in sight either way. So not unlike fishing from rooftops (the water tanks in my picture come from New York, which can also be stifling in summer). I was not as good an angler as my brother, and prone to dropping things – fish, tackle, bait – among the rocks. He would then come and help me out, being nowhere near as mean or indifferent as the boy in the book. In any case, the overriding memory of my childhood in Perth is space, light and time. Everything seemed so much bigger and elemental, for better or worse. Summer holidays seemed epic back then, whereas everything these days seems more like diminishing little squares on a calendar!

The unnerving crow/ raven features in each of the paintings, often subtle, but always present. Can you explain a bit about why you chose the crow?

I used to paint crows (or Australian ravens, as they are actually are) quite a lot in my early twenties: large landscapes with quiet houses and trees, no people in sight, but lots of crows. In one respect, this is just what I saw when I went for long walks in the northern suburbs. I don’t see them as an evil or sinister presence, but more like something ancient and enduring, as if they are just watching us come and go in daily life as well as in history, and watching our mistakes too. In the Rules of Summer, they don’t actually do anything bad, but I feel that they might, if given a reason. By themselves, they are just crows. Perhaps they find humans to be the dark and sinister ones.


Left: Rescue, Always bring bolt cutters, Oil on canvas, 2013 Right: Never loose a fight, Oil on canvas, 2013

There is something about the rescue scene ‘Always bring bolt cutters’ which reminded one of our visitors of the famous bicycle scene in the film ET.  In the process of illustrating do you think about your artistic and cultural influences deliberately or do they appear automatically?

The E.T. similarity never occured to me, but I guess it’s there, and definitely many films have fed my subconscious over the years – The Lost Thing actually has an E.T. resonance also. When I’m drawing or writing, I don’t think so much about influences or references though, I just work with whatever comes to mind, so if they do appear, it’s automatic rather than deliberate. Often I only consider possible origins later, usually when I’m editing a story or painting, which I think is the longest and most thoughtful part of the creative process, more so than the initial flurry of ideas.

A lot of your work deals with surreal imagery. Where does this inspiration come from?

It’s quite hard to say. I also like to paint ‘normal’ things, but then get to a point where it feels too much like an imitation of reality, and it needs to comment on something else, to come from a more unusual perspective. It’s trying to see familiar things as if for the first time. Imagine you’d never seen a fish before, or a tree, or a cloud. That kind of revelatory experience is what I’m looking for in pictures and stories. Painting is a bit like having a second childhood as an adult, seeing everything as new all over again.

In Rules of Summer  the text illustrates the pictures and the pictures the text. Which comes first for you Illustrations or words?

They both come in drips and drabs, and I change them a lot as the book evolves over a long period. I often think of it as a ping-pong relationship, a bit of writing might trigger an image, which triggers another written expression, which that suggests something else to draw. At some point I stop when things feel sufficiently meaningful (or not!) but before they become too explanatory. I also end up removing a lot of stuff from the final version, trying to keep it all a bit mysterious, not giving too much away.

  • View more of your summer words of wisdom on our Flickr
  • Teachers can book Rules of Summer school programs by contacting The Literature Centre Inc Fremantle.
  • Copies of Rules of Summer can be purchased from the State Library book shop.
  • Find out more about Shaun Tan.
  • Watch an interview with Shaun Tan on our YouTube

Rules of Summer

‘This is what I learned last summer:’, begins Shaun Tan’s latest award winning picture book Rules of Summer.  Be amazed by enigmatic oil paintings from the book on display now at State Library of Western Australia.


Shaun Tan, Never drop your jar, 2013, Oil on canvas

In a dramatic series of paintings Tan maps the activities of two boys through their memories of last summer. Themes of friendship rivalry and imagination are explored in a series of pictorial contrasts between urban and natural, real and extraordinary, excitement and foreboding, familiar and strange, in both frightening and comforting moments.

Each painting explores a rule skilfully woven together to form a narrative that is open to multiple interpretations.

According to Shaun Tan, “Each picture might be seen as the chapter of an unwritten tale that can only be elaborated in the reader’s imagination”

Discover possibilities beyond the picture frame and journey into an oddly familiar emotive landscape.

The exhibition which features original works curated with pages from the picture book and exclusive video footage is on display at the State Library of Western Australia until January 27. 

When: 19 December 2014 – 27 January 2015
Where: The Gallery, Ground Floor, State Library of Western Australia
Entry: Entry is free. Open during library hours

More information:

  • Family friendly exhibition
  • All venues at the State Library are wheelchair accessible
  • Copies of Rules of Summer are available from the State Library Shop
  • Find out more about State Library Exhibitions 
  • Rules of Summer official website