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Shaun Tan is a picture book author and artist.


His works, such as, The Red Tree, Eric and The Lost Thing are strange, otherworldly fables that are dominated by his superb and eerie art work.

His books demand the close attention of the reader, and although they are marketed as young children’s picture books, and this is where you will find them in book shops, I feel that his work is so much more than that, and almost needs to go in with graphic novels.

He is concerned with issues of identity, our place in the world, and the environment and how we operate as humans in a larger landscape.

I find his books quite dark, but they can be very, very beautiful indeed.

The Bird King is a collection of sketches, jottings, and preparatory art pieces that Tan has created en route to his finished works. They are grouped in this book in sections, like preparatory work for big art projects, inspirational drawings which have gone on to  have an impact on his stories and interesting sketches and doodles.

Tan prefaces each section with a mini essay on how he works, why he has chosen these works and what he thinks about them as both part of an ongoing project and as stand alone art works.

The text is very grown up, and not really suitable for a child unless they are incredibly precocious and/or wildly interested in the technicalities of the creative process.

The pictures however, are another matter.

They are beautiful, fascinating, detailed jewels that demand to be looked at over and over again. Some are whimsical, such as the ‘Tea Ceremony’ drawing in the opening section of the book, in which Tan depicts a parade of creatures marching around a tea pot, celebrating a tea ceremony.  Some are scary, like the individuals crouched behind a wall, as a giant, red rabbit stalks past, obviously hunting them out. Some are a procession of sketches, showing how Tan develops a character for a book or painting.

All of them are fascinating, and if your child is a fan of Tan’s work, or you are using one of his books in a teaching environment, this is an ideal companion book. It fosters discussion about the creative process, the creatures Tan creates, the ideas he formulates on paper and how art works. It encourages children to be creative themselves, and his inclusion of doodles and rough sketches, can boost a child’s confidence, reassuring them that it is not compulsory to get a creative idea right from the get go.

My son has been fascinated by this book, particularly Tan’s alien and robot drawings. He has been exploring drawing robots a lot, thanks to the doodles in the Tom Gates’ books he is currently reading for school. These drawings are on a different scale, finer, more detailed, intricate and polished, but he can see that the principle is the same, and is itching to have a go himself at refining some of his own drawings.

A wonderful book about creating art and narrative. It is lovely to share with children, and I recommend it as a sharing book for children as young as five or six. It is suitable for both boys and girls, because it speaks to the artist in all of us.