Shaun Tan

A children’s book that changed my life

There are many, but one that comes to mind immediately is The Starry Messenger by Peter Sis, a story about Galileo that I came across as a young illustrator in my early twenties. It was the first time I had seen Sis’ work and I was struck by its complex detail and sophisticated layout. It made me realise that a single picture book could have strong appeal to readers of any age. As a child, the picture book that influenced me the most was probably Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a set of strange story fragments without any coherent narrative.

How I came to realise the importance of reading

I think I realised the importance of reading long before I knew how to do it. I remember being frustrated as a small child that I couldn’t decode signs, labels and books, and then being excited about figuring things out bit by bit. Sometimes I would combine random letters together and ask my parents if they made up a word – they never did! But it’s interesting that as an adult I’m still fascinated by imaginary, unreadable languages, which I often use in my stories.

The power of art

As a child, I quickly discovered the power of being a good drawer at school: it also diverted attention away from my diminutive size, so that I was ‘the artist’ rather than ‘the little kid’. This meant that artistic skill had a lot of practical social value! That wasn’t the main reason for my attraction; it was something to do with the pleasure of creating an alternative reality through painting and sculpture, often inspired by things I read in books or saw at the movies.

Library experience

My interest in science fiction, which led to my interest in illustration and eventually picture books, probably began at the age of 12 when a librarian in a local public library directed me to some SF anthologies, particularly the work of Ray Bradbury, which continues to exert an influence on my writing and painting. As a child, my family could not afford to buy many books, so the public library was the most frequently visited place outside of school and home. It was not just as a repository for books about art and science fiction (my main interests), but a sanctuary for quiet contemplation, writing and sketching.

Challenges in my work

Getting started is always a bit of problem for me; I’m a terrible procrastinator! But once I do begin working, I quickly become engaged, as if each project were a big puzzle that needs to be solved. I’m much better at finishing things, actually, than starting them – it’s extremely rare that I will abandon anything, no matter how difficult it gets (and things always get difficult).

Importance of contacts with readers/the public

Artistic practice is, by nature, quite solitary and introverted – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet, from time to time it’s very helpful to reconnect with an audience and realise that every book is a conversation with others, not just a vehicle for self-expression. Every time I meet readers, I’m aware that they are co-creators in the story-telling process, being imaginative and inventive in their own personal way. That’s an important thing for writers and illustrators to remember.

My definition of quality

Integrity, basically. That includes both the sincerity of an artistic intention, as well as the relationship between form and idea, where the way that a story or image is presented feels essential.

My views on children’s right to culture

Imagination is arguably the key to all success, and also freedom from a certain tyranny of mediocre thought, low expectation and closed mindedness. Imagination is also a fragile thing; although it seems to be a natural talent every child is born with, it can be easily blunted or malnourished unless it remains exposure to a broad range of creative thinking. Books in particular remind us that the world is constructed through imagination as much as real-life experience, and so leave us empowered to think about new possibilities.

What has the award meant for you?

Many things, aside from an initial big surprise! It’s been an amazing recognition of work produced over the years, which has gradually reached a new international audience (something I never anticipated when I began working as an illustrator in Western Australia). In some ways, the ALMA is also a welcome affirmation for both myself and my publishers that experimental picture books have been a worthwhile pursuit. And also a broadly shared interest, particularly in a country such as Sweden – part of a much larger cross-cultural project. I feel less marginal as a creator, and more confident about my direction, and enjoy the tacit connection to other winners and nominees of this prize; a unified community of disparate individuals. Of course, the trip to Scandinavia was amazing, and needless to say the prize money is an incredible gift that will certainly help improve my working conditions and income security; it has all spurred me on to continue experimenting with writing and illustration.

What are you working with at present?

I’m developing a picture book that plays with the idea of an unwritten narrative (a special interest of mine), a series of oil paintings describing the relationship between an older and younger sibling. I’ve been thinking about it for many years, but only now getting time to devote some sustained attention to it. I’m also working on a project for the Sydney Museum that involves getting children to imagine the fictional history of obscure objects in the museum’s collection. This is very different to what I normally do as a writer and illustrator, and lots of fun. I’m also working with a producer to develop a feature-film script based on my graphic novel, The Arrival, which is a complicated but interesting process.