Inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales
A unique and alluring art book showcasing Shaun Tan's extraordinary sculptures based on the timeless and compelling fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.
Shaun Tan grew up in Perth, Western Australia and currently works as an artist, writer and film-maker in Melbourne. He began creating images for science fiction stories in small-press magazines as a teenager, and has since become best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through dream-like imagery. The Rabbits, The Red Tree, The Lost Thing, Tales from Outer Suburbia, The Arrival and Rules of Summer have been enjoyed by readers of all ages, locally and internationally. Shaun has also worked as a theatre designer, a concept artist for Pixar and Blue Sky Studios, and won an Academy Award for the short film adaptation of The Lost Thing. In 2011 he received the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in Sweden, in recognition of his services to literature for young people.
Along with many others a new work from Shaun Tan sends a frisson of expectation and the promise of delighted awe through me and The Singing Bones is no disappointment. From the first ‘picking up’, feeling the sleekness of the stylish bounding to the leisurely inspection of each sumptuous spread, this is a volume that can be described without hesitation as a visual and tactile feast for any reader.
A foreword from Philip Pullman and introduction by Jack Zipes, leading scholar of fairy tales, herald page after page of a book inspired by the work of legendary story collectors - and librarians! - Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (the Brothers Grimm).
Rather than simply retelling the stories Shaun Tan has chosen to focus on what might be described as the ‘kernel’ of each tale; seventy-five of the Grimm’s collected folk stories in all are included. An annotated index summarises the plot of each. Stories familiar to us all such as Rapunzel, The Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood are joined by far less well known tales, allowing readers to more fully appreciate the immense body of work undertaken by the two German brothers in their lifetimes.
To accompany each tale, Tan has created the most amazing sculptures of small figures which Pullman describes as “perfect realisations of the strangeness of the characters they represent”.
In an explanation at the end of the book, Tan relates how this project evolved and provides more details on his webpage (link above). When the book was launched earlier this month, it was accompanied by an exhibition of the sculptures – cue envy of Melburnians at this point! I think those of us in other states would like to hope we might also have the opportunity at some stage to see this stunning display of artwork. Apparently attendees were invited to create their own little figures in clay – a super idea for your library! I recall doing this same thing with Shaun’s little white creature from The Arrival with some brilliant results from students.
I have shown this book to several colleagues today and all have exclaimed over the ‘beauty’ of it – both presentation and contents. We are already discussing adding this to our Readers Circles titles for 2016 as it is such a unique work. With amazing synchronicity it also arrived in our box of standing orders this morning, so will shortly be prominently displayed in our library.
I know this will need no recommendation to you all but regardless; I cannot endorse it more fulsomely. It is truly special and a book to be treasured!
(Watch out for this to be an award winner!)
Sue Warren, QLD
Shaun Tan's The Singing Bones is a beautifully produced book that will capture both adults and children. Using Grimms' Fairy Tales as inspirations, his book is a series of photographic plates of sculptures that visually depict an aspect of a fairy tale. As an English teacher I can see various ways we could use The Singing Bones from related texts for Discovery in Stage 6, models for students of how to do visual representations in Stage 5 or additional visual texts for the Stage 4 genre study on fairy tales. Visual Art teachers would also see uses for this book. The visual appeal of this book also makes this a great 'coffee table' book in any library or staff common room.
Fiona Willis, Coonamble High School, NSW
Another fantastic book by the Oscar winning artist – Shaun Tan. His latest book is not only a feast for the ears but also for the eyes with photographs of his fantastic sculptures. A book telling traditional fairy tales has been brought into the 21st century. The range of Grimm’s Fairy tales include the ones that are most well-known, like ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ to the lesser told stories like ‘The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage’. The each of the seventy five tales is illustrated with a photograph of one of Tan’s whimsical and quirky sculptures and surprisingly each sculpture was created on a very small scale.
This books opens up the possibilities of multiple uses in the classroom with students, whether it be in a primary class or to a Year 12 Art class. I showed this book to a number of art teachers in the school and they were excited by it and could see the many applications of how they could use this in their own classes and many of them are going to obtain their own copy.
A few ideas of this wonderful book can be used in the classroom with students can include:
• Using the photographs as a stimulus for students to write their own stories
• Replicate the sculptures in other art mediums – 2D images, using plasticine
• Using the stories to create their own art work
• Using the stories to rewrite the tale set in a modern context
• Use one of the tales to write their own fractured tale
• Investigate where these tales came from
• Investigate the meaning of the “tale”, what does the story trying to tell you, the moral of the story
• Investigate the inspiration of Tan’s sculptures – where do they come from, what are their purpose, what are they made from etc…
This is fantastic book and definitely that should be in all school libraries.
Alison Hay, Teacher-Librarian, Yarra Hills Secondary College, VIC
Shaun Tan's new book The Singing Bones is a beautiful compilation of photographs that any reader will enjoy. Each photograph shows a sculpture that has been specifically created to represent one of the Grimm’s fairy tales. There are so many fairy tales represented throughout the book that it would be hard for any one reader to recognise each of the sculptures throughout the text.
This book encourages the reader to refresh their knowledge of Grimm’s grim tales, due to the endless list of stories and stunning pictures. Throughout this book Tan exposes the reader to information about the Grimm’s brothers and their lives as writers as well as invigorates curiosity about the much loved tales they wrote. This text provides a small quote from their written fairy tales on the left hand page and is accompanied by a photograph of a sculpture on the right. This layout has been designed to expand readers’ understanding of the sculptures as they view them.
Each sculpture is a unique depiction of a famous story and therefore will be able to be used in classrooms especially when studying units of works that look at the classics or a unit, which examines changes in fairy tales over time. These pictures will also work well as visual texts, which can be evaluated and discussed in the classroom. A task which students may enjoy is listening to a few of Grimm’s tales and then looking at a variety of sculptures and trying to match them up with the tale they believe has the most connection to the story. Furthermore the pictures in this text could be used as the basis for creative writing. Students could be issued a picture and be asked to write the narrative for it. I believe this will be an extremely useful tool in the classroom.
Tanya Davies, English and ESL Teacher, International Co-ordinator, NSW
The little sculptural figures in Shaun Tan’s The Singing Bones create a new and unique experience of the traditional fairy tale. The abstract, weird, and at times grotesque figures, reflect the intrinsic nature of the fairy tale but add a significant new dimension. The figures visually engage our imagination and emotions in ways that are meaningful but intangible, or are at least difficult to explain. They are an example of how visual characters convey meaning in ways words cannot. The odd characters conveying through the subconscious as well as the conscious prompting both an emotional and intellectual response.
In “The boy who left home to find out about fear”, the little red boy sits below the gallows reading a book beneath the pale featureless abstract figures. The image makes me feel emotionally uneasy. It has a surreal atmosphere that is the stuff of nightmares. Intellectually it prompts existential questions strings of memory from my academic past.
As a teacher I would love to use these images to prompt a creative response before the students read the accompanying text. With senior students it provides an opportunity for a profound learning experience through comparing artists who achieve the same intellectual and emotional responses through the exploration of the subconscious; the cartoons of Lunig, the photographs of Gregory Crewdson are examples. What stories are being conveyed by the images? What is it about the images that make us ‘feel’?
There are so many possibilities. “Freud and the Brothers Grim” discuss. As Peppermint Patty’s History test stated, Use both sides of the paper if necessary!
Leanne Courto, Hellyer College
The stark cover catches the eye; the howling red fox catching your attention first but your eye is quickly drawn to the central focus. If you know Shaun Tan’s illustrative work you will recognize his hand even though he has stepped into the world of sculpture. The Singing Bones will draw you inside to an old world seen through an enigmatic lens.
For the lovers of faerie tales and fantasy, the unusual and paradoxical, here is a book that will grab your attention. The Foreword is written by eminent author Phillip Pullman whose recent Grimm Tales celebrates the first Bicentenary of the Grimm brothers original Children’s and Household Tales published in 1813 and Jack Zipes’ well researched historical recount of the Brothers Grimm provides a contextual backdrop for Tan’s sculptures.
Shaun Tan has created a world on each double page, the story excerpt from the Brothers Grimm on the left and the enigmatic visualization on the right. An entire world has been created from the ground up with Tan’s careful use of lighting and positioning of the sculptures; the viewer is drawn into the world as their eye follows curves and delves into the shadows created.
The small sculptures of what looks like weathered stone first appear simplistic and childlike from a primitive race and time until you look a little further. It takes a master artist to convey such symbolism and emotion in clean and simple lines. These unassuming characters are able to convey the raw emotion of the centuries old original tales. Shaun Tan has kept to the true message of Grimm’s tales and has not tried to be politically correct or attempted to ‘Disneyfy’ the often-brutal tales from a world long gone.
This is a must for collectors of Faerie Tales or those who are interested in where modern fantasy stories originate. Teachers will find a wealth of material to teach visual literacy and artistic endeavour within these pages. Discover the world of the Brothers Grimm with each new page you turn.
Jo Corcoran, Teacher Librarian, Highfields State School, QLD
This book is AMAZING. It deserves to be in every library, every book collection and on every coffee table. The time and detail dedicated to this unique book is inspiring. I feel no matter what I write in this review, you need to physically look at this book yourself to grasp the magnitude of it. Once I have reviewed a book for Allen and Unwin I usually take it to class, do a promo of the book and talk to my students about it. It then gets passed around for my students to borrow and read and sometimes if I am lucky, the book comes back. I’m going to be selfish on this one it’s not going home with any of my students!
Inspired by the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, this book is a collection of Shaun Tan’s clay models that illustrate 75 of those fairy tales.
The book starts with a beautiful introduction by Jack Zipes that gives an overview of The Brothers Grimm. Each double page is then allocated to a fairy tale. However each fairy tale simply has an excerpt from it. For example, "Hansel and Gretel" starts with ‘The roof was made of cake, and it tasted ….’, each fairy tale is then ‘illustrated’ by a clay sculpture. These sculptures though are so detailed, that lighting, backdrop, base are all differently created to represent the different tales. My favourite double page is Rapunzel. Rapunzel’s long gold hair is juxtaposed against a black background, but the bright and colourful dried flowers and berries that are scattered at the bottom of the page give beauty to Rapunzel and the context of the fairy tale.
The book ends with an Afterword by Shaun Tan and an annotated index that gives a brief summary of each of the 75 fairy tales.
This book provides ample opportunity for classroom use. It lends itself for study in Art and Visual Design, or for visual literacy in English classrooms. It is highly valuable for topics that include fairy tales or graphic novels.
Jodie Webber, Hurlstone Agricultural High School, NSW
There have been many explorations and reinventions of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. None has the exquisite brevity and hauntingly beautiful imagery of Sean Tan’s Art book, The Singing Bones. This text is accessible and easy to dip into, a seamless blend of beautiful spare extracts and of photographs which have been lit and composed with studied quietude. Then there are the works of art themselves, achingly beautiful, with the ability to stand alone, but yet the integrity of illustrating and illuminating the tales as a collection.
Adult readers will welcome the reinterpretation of the familiar, grisly, tales that are presented. The extracts make vibrant, interesting reading. Artists will appreciate the meticulous work of creating the figures from papier mache, clay, and paint, as well as the photographic achievements. Whilst there will be parents or other adults who might view the Tales as inappropriately grisly for today’s younger children, the central themes in these tales of goodness, bravery, staunchness, overcoming evil and injustice are as life enhancing as they ever were.
Tan ends his book with a good annotated index, which helps remind readers of each original tale without being long winded. This index was helpful to me, as although I remember that as a child I did read, or had read to me, some of the Brothers Grimm’s Fairytales; others are unfamiliar. There is a Foreword by Philip Pullman, an Introduction by Jack Zipes, ‘Recommended’ and ‘Further’ Reading lists, as well as Acknowledgments by Shaun Tan. All of these are useful in illuminating the process of the production of the texts. Suitable for any aged readers, the text would lend itself particularly well to Art or Literature studies. Useful as a text for History, Cultural, or Society and Environment studies, the book would also make a good pairing with any of the original Grimms’ Fairytales, for the purpose of intertextual study in English. It could provide a springboard for discussion on a wide range of themes. A superb addition to any Library or collection of Art books.
Helen Wilde, SA