The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It is melancholic and sombre. It is a picture book of exquisite beauty. The blurb at the back sets the tone for the thought provoking read: “Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” In my opinion, this book deals with the topic of depression and sadness in children. It begins with a picture of a girl waking up in a bleak room. Each image from then on is describing the emotions one feels when they are overwhelmed and lost with sadness. Tan does this expertly through the use of symbols and colors. Some of his descriptions for emotions are striking, as seen below. Two words accompany this image: “Nobody understands.” I think this haunting illustration perfectly sums up how one can feel so isolated and closed off from the world in times of stress.
Scale and perspective are used to an excellent effect in the book. The girl is always dwarfed by monstrous shapes and beings to underline her powerlessness in spite of her feelings. The next image shows the sudden weight that depression could bring on a person “Darkness overcomes you.” is the line describing the image.
I have looked many times at this book and I always find something new. There are literally hundreds of shapes and hidden signs interlocked in the background and in other objects. The artwork in the story is a thing to behold. One of the most vibrant and vivid pictures I have ever looked at appears to describe how wonderful things pass us by when we’re overcome with grief or sadness.
I admire this book on so many levels. The text and the images combine to produce a powerful message. The book is bleak but has a hopeful ending which I felt was important to include. I admire Tan’s ability to produce a book that deals with the feelings of melancholy which can develop in children. Tan himself refutes this, saying that he completes his books without thinking of an audience — but I think this book is a work of real merit. He is one of the top illustrators in the genre and I often wonder if it is an injustice to call his books picture books as they are very hard to define. This is a book most people should try and read once. I think people will identify with its strange but hopeful message. I know everyone who reads this book will empathize and understand what the protagonist is going through.
This book is a marvelous achievement as I believe it breaks out of the genre of children’s literature. In a way, it tackles the taboo topic of depression and grief in children. This is my interpretation!
¡PSST! © 2016 The Black Lion Journal. A contributor submission shared with permission. Visit the submit page for information on how you too can be featured on TBL Journal. ¡P.S. Share by linking or by using the social media buttons below!