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Shaun Tans The Singing Bones Is the Childrens Book for Adults

With its stark sculptures and dark undertones, this childrens book is
better left for to the grownups.

By Caroline Stanko

Weve all been there before. Squatting down in front of a bookcase


that doesnt reach past your knees, fingering through a mix of
magazine-thin books that tell tales of hungry caterpillars or an
engine who thinks it can and thicker volumes of girls on a prairie or
something else just as depressing. Whether it is for your own child,
or youre stuck watching your niece or nephew, having to read them
a bedtime story before they go to sleep can be a gruelingly boring
obligation that can become especially painful if youre reading the
same pretty princess story over, and over, and over again. But what
if there was a book that turned all those fairy tales on its head?
What if it was told through sculptures on a page? What if you, as a
full grown adult, became as entranced by this book, unable put it
down, even long after the kids have fallen asleep?

Enter Shaun Tan, an Australian author, illustrator, and Academy


Award winning director of the short film adaption of his 2001
picture book, The Lost Thing, and his stark new work, The Singing
Bones. Simple in concept and complex in stunning detail, The
Singing Bones extracts the soul from 75 well-known and obscure
Brothers Grimm stories, shapes them into sculptures of clay and
sand and sets them aside a textual excerpt to show the primordial
nature of these tales.

A retelling of the Brothers Grimm tales is anything but new. A quick


google search of Brothers Grimm book comes up with over 1.5
million results in less than a second, and thats not accounting for
the endless film, television, and stage interpretations that
consistently recycle themselves with remakes and live action
versions. Whats different about Tans work is that is not a retelling,
but a repurposing of the stories into sculptures to capture the story,
rather than tell it.

The book is made up of three, distinctive sections. The first is the


Foreword by Neil Gaiman with an Introduction of the Brothers
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, by Jack Zipes. While most preludes
give necessary but dull introductory information, the eloquence of
Gaimans experience with both the stories and the sculptures of the
book provide a profound framework of which to pour-over the later
Plates, as Tan calls his carvings. Perhaps the biggest insight
Gaiman feeds the hungry reader is that:

(Tans) sculptures suggest, they do not describe. They imply, they


do not delineate. They are, in themselves, stories: not the frozen
moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be. These are
something new, something deeper. They do not look like moments
of the stories; instead, they feel like stories themselves

And its this sense of wholeness and eerie completeness that


stretches throughout all 75 Plates. Each page spread features a full
page photograph of a sculpture, without a border or distraction on
the right, and on the left, a short excerpt of the tale.

The sculptures themselves are a triumph of weighted and raw


beauty. Centered and heavily textured, each image of a sculpture
manages to create a world within the page that pulls the reader in,
dazzled by its balance between the complexity of its meaning and
the simplicity of its overall construction. Tan creates the sculptures
to be vague in structure by forming figures and objects as bodies
without distinct facial features or body parts. What Tan doesnt
include in realistic features, he makes up tenfold with the emotion
that is injected in the figures through their stance and orientation to
other elements in the photo.
One particularly poignant instance of Tans ease of features is with
Plate 23, The Maiden without Hands. Here, an angelic figure with
wings stands tall, hanging its unformed head over a small figure on
its knees, arms that stop abruptly at the wrist, raised to the angel.
Even if you not familiar with the story of The Maiden without
Hands, youre able to fully understand the circumstances that
these two figures are in, and their relationship to each other
through Tans ability to capture such deep feelings in his
ambiguously formed sculptures.

An element that keeps all of these free standing stories connected as


a collection is the consistency with which Tan creates his art. The
use of texture, shape, color, and shading, while varying in its degree
to stave off monotony, build up on and play off of each other with
every Plate, creating a strong voice and direction in the book. With
ranges of blacks, greys, whites, reds, and yellows, the feeling of
these sculptures representing natural elements and human
dynamics is reinforced, and adds an honest darkness to these tales.

The only time Tan falters from the force and power of this
sculptures is when he backs away from these ranges of color and
texture. Most notably is with Plate 28, Gambling Hans. This Plate
takes a bold step away from the natural shades of the surrounding
stories by consisting mainly of a tree stalk in the varying shades of
an unripe lime, that is topped with a sunny flower, and surrounded
by brightly colored, whole fruits. While this Plate is consistent in its
texture and forming of the book, the color variation from the rest of
the collection is jarring, and makes the reader want to squint their
eyes while they flip to the next page. Despite there being other color
detours like in Plate 60, Mother Holle and Plate 13 The
Fisherman and His Wife, none go quite as off kilter as Gambling
Hans.
At the same time Tans sculptures vary in their structure and visual
elements, the excerpt pages change only in the words they use to
provide background to the sculptures. Each textual page is
consistent in its off-white, almost damaged coloring, and the
paragraph of text is the same color and format on each page. What
these paragraphs give to the book (which are excerpts from The
Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jack Zipes, of the
introduction) is not the tale they are telling, but are a sort of
footnote that give the sculptures more context if the reader has
absolutely no idea what the tale is. The text works to reiterate the
points that the sculpture is making, rather that stating them itself.
The reversal of focus between image and text is integral to the book
and understanding it as a repurposing of the Grimm tales.

The final section of the book consists of an index with a short


summary of each story in the book, along with a list for future
readings of the Brothers Grimm tales, and quick acknowledgments.

Shaun Tans creation is truly a work of art that walks the tightrope
between these stories that are so widely known and the primal
forces that wed rather forget they include. The Singing Bones is
much like the tale it takes its name from. A lone, bone of truth taken
from its used and abused owner to be a beacon of truth in a world
that has lost sight of where it has come from.

For New Yorks online culture review site, Vulture.com.