RULES OF SUMMER
By Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine. $18.99. Ages 10 and up
On the embossed cover of this enigmatic picture book, the face of a small figure planted in the foreground is obscured by a huge, red, helmet-shaped eye. Behind him, a T-shirted teen slouches along in the company of a wind-up blue metal dinosaur. Melting into a distant dark-blue sky, the prickly spires of trees and a smoke-belching chimney hint at an unlovely city. Welcome to the mysterious and menacing world of Shaun Tan. By turns gorgeous and gruesome, his images are accompanied by a series of seemingly innocuous “rules.” “Never leave the back door open overnight” appears opposite a semi-destroyed living room filled with over-sized insects, a giant lizard, a fiery tree spreading across the ceiling and an upended television set awash in undersea creatures. The teen and his younger brother, shovel and bucket in hand, observe the ominous scene from the doorway as if it were utterly ordinary.
Another rule: “Never step on a snail” appears to trigger a violent tornado. “Never lose a fight” is the most chilling rule of all. The younger of the two boys is led by the older toward a black dome-shaped apparatus. Smoke pours from its trunk-like chimney. As the scope of Tan’s illustrations pulls farther and farther back, a bleached wasteland appears, followed by crow-infested darkness. But there is sweetness as well. “Never miss the last day of summer” faces a scene filled with house-sized servings of cake and towering fruits as well as a joyous parade. And in the end, the two boys sit side-by-side on the couch munching popcorn, bathed in the glow of the once-wrecked TV. Images echo, reappear and morph, just as they do in dreams. This is an unsentimental vision of what childhood is all about: hemmed in by unfathomable rules, beset by fears, overwhelmed by powerlessness, but punctuated as well by the buoyant optimism born of love.