The Red Tree

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The Red Tree is another outstanding book by Australian illustrator and author Shaun Tan. The book published by Hachette Australia in 2001 leads us on one girl’s journey through a dark and confusing path of depression. Although each page contains a few words it is the images that capture the reader’s attention with new objects, images and meanings discovered each time the book is reopened.

Shaun Tan has had an impressive illustrative career spanning over fifteen years. He has won various awards as an illustrator on notable books such as ‘The Viewer,’ ‘The Rabbits,’ ‘The Arrival,’ ‘The Lost Thing,’ ‘Tales from Outer Suburbia,’ and ‘The Red Tree (Wikipedia 2011).’

Much of Tan’s inspirations are drawn from the environment around him such as landscapes, buildings, objects and people. He takes these elements and experiments with the relationship between words, images and meanings with a thought provoking look at everyday social, political and historical occurrences such as depression, immigration, and alienation. Furthermore, the books contain an emotional depth that draws the viewer in. The illustrations portray a sense of dark, yet humble beauty with several layers of meaning and rich sentiment. Tan’s distinguished mixed media illustrations contain an infusion of riveting metaphors, fantasy, subtle symbolism and a mixture of art techniques ranging from cut paper collages to surrealist paintings. The combination of figurative language and imagery communicates to the reader a strong sense of emotion and feeling, yet the meanings are left to ones interpretation and imagination. It is a journey of self discovery.

Fittingly, The Red Tree is a journey that we all partake in through out life. For some, the journey may contain a few hiccups here and there in a relative bright world, for others it may be a detrimental path. It is therefore, a story that can provide solace, discussion and contemplative thought based on the age of the reader. A story that enables children to perhaps recognise inner struggles, identify with others and allow an opportunity to seek advice if required. Whilst very young readers may not understand the symbolism and metaphors they will be able to identify the emotions within. It is a book that should be used from kindergarten to year six in a time that is seeing depression starting at a very young age. For that reason, The Red Tree is a story that lets children know that they are not alone, whether the problem is big or small.

Tan's brilliant illustrations are saturated in colour. The ideas become doodles, then sketches which become a work of art. Tan’s use of oils; acrylic, wax pencil and collage on paper capture the reader’s attention. The effect of monotonous dark colours and bright undertones throughout the illustrations convey a feeling of helplessness with a hint of hope. The brown shades when merged with images such as the door- less buildings, downcast expressions, the juxtaposition of large and small images and sharp and harsh shapes create an impression of vulnerability and fear that one may not escape. The girl, throughout the book has down cast eyes that make her look miserable and exhausted. In many of the images her hair partially covers her eyes, which implies that she may be timid. Her dress is plain, possibly because she does not want to attract attention to herself, and she is also beset by the vastness of the landscapes suggesting a feeling of loneliness.

Even though all illustrations within this book a worth mentioning two that really grab your attention are the imposing fish and the girl in the bottle. The image of the fish floating above the girls head is a daunting figure that casts a shadow upon her. The spiky shadow, the gaping mouth and weeping eye of the fish add to an intense feeling of hurt and being consumed. Further, the thick brushstrokes, the lightless and repetitive windows, shades of yellow and expressionless people create a heavy and oppressive image that...
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