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A Graphic-ly Impressive Duo: Reviews of the latest from Chris Grine and Shaun Tan

The Bird King: an artist’s notebook by Shaun Tan

bird kingA new book of sketches, artwork, and personal reflection from the brilliant mind of award winning, bestselling author and illustrator Shaun Tan. “I’m often wary of using the word ‘inspiration’ to introduce my work–it sounds too much like a sun shower from the heavens, absorbed by a passive individual enjoying an especially receptive moment. While that may be the case on rare occasions, the reality is usually far more prosaic. Staring at a blank piece of paper, I can’t think of anything original. I feel utterly uninspired and unreceptive. It’s the familiar malaise of ‘artist’s block’ and in such circumstances there is only one thing to do: just start drawing.” –Shaun Tan

And when Shaun Tan starts drawing, the results are stunning. In THE BIRD KING: AN ARTIST’S NOTEBOOK, we find a window into the creative process: the stops and starts, the ideas that never took off, and the ones that grew into something much bigger. Fans of THE ARRIVAL will recognize the quirky, surreal sensibility that is so distinctly Shaun Tan in this stunning collection, and gain insight into how his many gorgeous books were made.

I was first introduced to the work of Shaun Tan when I taught in Australia, and I used his well-known collaboration with John Marsden, “The Rabbits” to introduce the concept of colonization to my students. I’ve since used it in Canada, and it’s an incredible allegorical tale with resplendent illustrations that vividly portray the emotional and physical impact of the arrival of the Europeans. Later, I brought his other books – The Red Tree, The Arrival, The Lost Thing, Lost and Found, and Tales from Outer Suburbia into my teaching, and all have had an incredible impact.

The Bird King is not a storybook; instead, it’s a peek inside Tan’s creative mind, with alternative sketches and draft versions of his most famous work. I found this an absolutely fascinating book, giving such incredible insight into some of his thought processes. There are many preliminary sketches here, and you can trace the development from first inklings to finished products. What I found most intriguing were the ‘throwaway’ bits, those little doodles that we all make – however, when you are Shaun Tan, your doodles may be a little more interesting than others! Some are quite sweet, while others have a darker edge to them. Overall, there’s something whimsical yet slightly quirky about his drawings and I would love to see Tan work with someone like Tim Burton… could you imagine the fanciful work they could create together??

After leisurely browsing through these illustrations, you will definitely be tempted to go back to revisit some of your favourite Tan picture books – and if you are new to his work you will have a wonderful journey ahead. This is a wonderful reference if you are looking for inspiration for your own artwork, or want to inspire a younger artist to keep going.

Chickenhare by Chris Grine

chickenhareChickenhare: half chicken, half rabbit, 100% hero!

What’s a chickenhare? A cross between a chicken and a rabbit, of course. And that makes Chickenhare the rarest animal around! So when he and his turtle friend Abe are captured and sold to the evil taxidermist Klaus, they’ve got to find a way to escape before Klaus turns them into stuffed animals. With the help of two other strange creatures, Banjo and Meg, they might even get away. But with Klaus and his thugs hot on their trail, the adventure is only just beginning for this unlikely quartet of friends.

I figured the best person to review this book would be someone from the target audience, so I’m pleased to welcome Luca to the blog for a joint review! Luca is eleven, and a very discriminate reader – he has no qualms about telling me what he does and does not like in his books.

Luca’s review: This was a great book, full of action and fighting. My favourite characters were Abe and Banjo because they were funny. Chickenhare was a cross between a chicken and a hare (a rabbit) and it’s kind of a weird mix, but it works and the character made me laugh a lot. My favourite part was when everyone was fighting the evil taxidermist, Klaus, in the cave because there was a lot of fighting and there were lots of pictures about it. Klaus isn’t really a bad guy; instead he’s just a creepy guy who likes animals so much that he wants to keep them forever.

Banjo and Meg fight all the time, and it was funny at times, but sometimes it was annoying. The end is a bit of a cliffhanger, so beware if you don’t like those kinds of things, but I really want to read another. I hope that the next book has the boat sinking and everyone gets stranded on an island because that would be cool.

This book is good for boys and girls, ages 11 and up, because it’s really adventurous. 10 year olds might like it too. This is especially good for people who have read Bone or Amulet or other graphic novels. Overall, though, I really liked the book, and I really want to read another book in this series.

My review: This is a fun and unique graphic novel that talks about friendship and the value of sticking together, but not in any kind of preachy way. The illustrations are different and charming, and draw the kids in quickly. Luca was completely engaged in this book, and read it in one sitting.

The concept of the taxidermy may be frightening for some younger readers, but, in Luca’s words, “it just gets a little weird at times” – nothing overtly scary is actually portrayed. Yes, it’s a book about a chicken and hare cross, so we’re already looking at something out of the norm, but the kids I’ve given it to have just gobbled it up and can’t wait for more. This is a highly recommended read – can’t wait for book 2 as I’ll be the favourite auntie again!

Both Chickenhare and The Bird King were provided by Scholastic Canada in exchange for an honest review. They may be purchased from Indigo, Amazon or your friendly independent bookseller. Chickenhare: ISBN: 9780545485081, 160 pages. The Bird King: ISBN: 9780545465137, 128 pages. 

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