Friday, 3 October 2014

ReaditDaddy's First Book of the Week - Week Ending 3rd October 2014 - "Sketches from a Nameless Land" - The Art of 'The Arrival' by Shaun Tan (Hodder Children's Books)

Sketches from a Nameless Land - The Art of 'The Arrival'

Written and Illustrated by
Shaun Tan

Published by Hodder Children's Books

They say you should never meet your heroes as you might be disappointed to find that they're just ordinary people really. They say you should never find out how magic tricks really work, because it will rob you of an element of childhood innocence that you can quite comfortably retain in ignorance of how a lady is really sawn in half, or how a rabbit appears from a top hat.

They also say that you should never look at books like "Sketches from a Nameless Land - The Art of 'The Arrival'" by Shaun Tan as you'll find out the magical processes of how an artist starts off with a blank page, and then four years (FOUR YEARS!) later produces one of the most important graphic works of the 21st century.

Tan's initial sketches of the vast cityscape the story's main protagonist finds himself in (image © Shaun Tan)

But sometimes it's impossible to resist. Hodder's companion book to "The Arrival" (which also nailed the book of the week slot with ease back in January of this year) actually works in completely the opposite way to what I expected. I thought that seeing Tan's processes might mean that a little of the magic of the completed work would be lost but actually it stands up on its own as a book that shows just how much work and effort went in to create such a masterpiece.

Shaun Tan is a fantastic illustrator with a rich imagination, but in his own words, he struggled at first with the concept of designing a wordless book with a grounding in realism that still retained his own style delving between the surreal and the fantastical.

Charlotte is beginning to really love process books like this for the same reasons I do. Seeing the first grains of an idea, constantly evolving and constantly polished until they resemble the finished article we've read and re-read so many times. She was recently enthralled by "The Art of Frozen" for similar reasons, seeing the first fleeting glimpses of how Anna and Elsa came to be.

Here in "Sketches from a Nameless Land" we learn something we already knew, that Shaun Tan based the main character on himself (purely for the ease of having an available 'model' to work up sketches from). We also learn a lot of things we didn't know - that for instance several elements are derived from real-life sources important to the history of migration, and several homages appear in the book to famous artworks that have also served as elements of visual history for mass migration throughout the 20th Century.

Charlotte's favourite part of the book dealt with something she'd been jolted by in "The Arrival" - and this was where my early caveats and warnings came into play a little. There's a sequence in "The Arrival" that deals with genocide. Giant creatures stalk through an ancient city, literally hoovering up (and burning) the inhabitants using gigantic hoover-like weapons. The giants are faceless, clad from head to toe in protective suits with huge boots for crushing and squashing. The introduction to that sequence, a fellow migrant's eyes lit with fire as he recalls the scene, is (for me) one of the most powerful images in the book and the following pages reinforce that too. To learn that Tan posed in his father's overalls, using a weed sprayer, and used those photo references for the piece felt like finding out Darth Vader wears a pair of flowery boxers under his dark cape - but it doesn't rob the finished images of their menace or their meaning.

Another section in the book shows the design process for our favourite supporting character "Diggy" (Images © Shaun Tan)

Tan is a genius, there's no doubt about it. He's also a perfectionist, he's methodical and he takes his time to hone his work to the highest sheen and it's evident throughout this companion book that "The Arrival" was a work wrought by a deep love and respect for the subject matter. It's nigh-on impossible to pigeonhole Tan's work, and it's almost rude to describe this as a children's book (it's most certainly something that children can appreciate and love as much as their pet grown-ups but grown ups should definitely not be dismissive about Tan's work, even if they are about other children's literature).

If, like me, you can't resist peeking behind the curtain to find out how things work or how they were produced, this is an essential book. If you've already marvelled at "The Arrival" (and we beg, URGE you to get a copy as soon as you can) then you really do need to read about Tan's enviable skill as storyteller and illustrator, and how he hones his craft too.

Charlotte's best bit: Finding out the not-so-menacing process behind designing "The Giants in Suits" for one of the most powerful sequences in "The Arrival"

Daddy's Favourite bit: A hugely inspirational piece of work and the perfect companion to a book we've read and re-read so many times. If you're interested in art and illustration, or the trickiest type of storytelling there is (wordless) then this is definitely something you need in your collection without a doubt.

(Kindly sent to us for review by Hodder Children's Books)