Book Review: The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan

cv_the_singing_bonesAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

These are Grimm’s fairy tales as they ought to be portrayed. The mix of the Grimm Tales and Shaun Tan’s genius was always going to be fruitful, and as a bit of a fan of both these tales and Tan, there was no chance I wasn’t going to love this book.

Every time my husband sees this book lying around he groans and says, “That would have been a brilliant Christmas book for you. Why did you have to go and get a review copy?” So I could tell the world, of course!

The Grimm Brothers’ biography is a fairy tale in itself: the eldest brothers in a family of six, despite their father’s early death, they were lucky enough to have wealthy relations send them to an elite school in Kassel, where they studied law and philology. They believed in the power of folktales to tell the essential truths of life in central and northern Europe. Fittingly, Shaun Tan’s sculptures were inspired both by the tales themselves, and by Inuit stone carvings and pre-Columbian clay figurines – used in a similar way in their own culture. This is a very concentrated way of expressing the tales.

Each sculpture is shown beside short excerpts – between one and three paragraphs – that tell the essence of the fairy tale that has inspired the creation. Those who are familiar with Tan’s illustration will see similarities in his approach to characterisation, particularly of the impish characters. The sculptures give such a unique view of the stories, they force you to reconsider the stories’ meaning.

I received the 2011 Taschen edition of The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm for my birthday last year. This edition used the fairy tales to display the development of illustration in children’s books, from the very earliest to more modern interpretations. This is a valuable background book, if only to show the variety of ways this work has been interpreted. Tan’s translation is just as beautiful, if less ornate than those shown in the Taschen collection.
There are several sculptures that stopped me in my tracks, the first being Tan’s depiction of ‘Cinderella’ – a golden face staring out from the hearth of a clay oven, with a blackened chimney-top. (pictured left, ©Shaun Tan ‘In the evening, when she was exhausted from working, they took away her bed, and she had to lie next to the hearth in the ashes.’ Another was ‘The Two Travellers’, one with a simple line on his forehead, another with the same line lower in his face, as a smile. And ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ is a gloriously devilish imp.

There are fuller summaries of the fairy tales at the back for those who aren’t familiar with some, and I found that useful at that stage, but don’t be tempted to go there earlier. The excerpts are generally well-enough chosen to make the meaning of the art clear. If the publication is missing one thing, it is a ribbon, to keep your place.

Give this to your fairy tale (or Shaun Tan) lover this summer: be they young or old, they are certain to respond to these retellings of the classic Grimm’s fairy tales.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Singing Bones
by Shaun Tan, foreword by Philip Pullman
Published by Allen & Unwin Children’s
ISBN 9781760111038