Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan (Hodder Children's Books)

Our quest to consume all things Shaun Tan flavoured continues. "The Rabbits" by John Marsden and Shaun Tan is another powerfully allegorical picture book that describes a subject that would normally see any author or illustrator involved in picture books run screaming into the trees, shouting "It just can't be done! It can't be done!"

The subject being dissected here is colonialism - a very grown up topic that quite rightly sailed over Charlotte's head but screamed loudly to me, particularly with the depiction of the Rabbits as an invading red-jacketed force backed up by military might, technical expertise and an almost godless disregard for the indigenous population of the land they rapidly occupy and strip-mine for its resources.

Glorious illustrative panels show the slab-sided rabbits, about as far removed from Charlotte's ideal view of a rabbit - a fluffy and cute bunny that twitches its nose and eats carrots - as it's possible to get.

As the furry natives succumb to the conquering force, the dark tone and sorrowful descriptions of their lives being irreparably changed feels like a raw nerve being gently stroked but with the occasional jab and poke from a sharp instrument.

Again as with anything else that Shaun Tan and John Marsden collaborate on, this is a book that creates as many questions as it answers, and one that might cause quite a few parents to wonder how they'd handle such a subject. After all, in the scope of most school history lessons, children will come across real-world examples as chilling and as difficult to stomach as what happens in this book.

From an artistic perspective, the illustrations are glorious and harrowing at the same time, finely detailed  and though the depiction of the creatures is largely stylised there's an eerie familiarity about the scenes in this book. Dive into any art gallery or museum and look at the huge paintings of subjects like the American War of Independence or the Russian Civil War and you'll see where the inspiration for this book must've come from. Brilliant, serious and dark. Just the way we like our alt-history.

Charlotte's best bit: Oddly I thought she'd really struggle finding stuff to like in this but she fell in love with the sweeping designs of the Rabbit Battle Ships. Amazing pointy-nosed ships that look every inch built for one thing and one thing only, making people extremely sorry for being on the business end of those points.

Daddy's favourite bit: The perfect example of why people shouldn't discount "children's" picture books as a massively effective medium for delivering a sledgehammer blow of a message in a way that children can dissect and digest.