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The Red Tree
Transcript of The Red Tree
The Red Tree is like a playground for the imagination in which Shaun Tan, the author and illustrator, empowers each reader to create meaning as they discover their own truth. I believe this book is the most incredible and realistic portrayal of human existence, a cut above the rest and then some! Tan describes the book as one with no characters as such, “only a nameless, unhappy girl who wanders through a series of disconnected landscapes” (Tan, 2013, p. 1). This exquisite collection of artwork takes readers of all ages on a journey of self-discovery as it taps into universal themes and emotions by posing questions such as, who are you, who are you meant to be, where are you and what are you supposed to do. It is remarkable how a book that is based in an imaginative world can reflect the real world more accurately that most other picture books. Since its release, The Red Tree has been translated into a number of languages including Japanese, Korean, and Chinese to name a few; it has also been rewritten as a play. This is evidence of both its cross-cultural appeal and accessibility to humans worldwide.
The Red Tree bravely taps into emotions and themes that are not typically explored in picture books, such as fear, anxiety, depression, loneliness and isolation. Tan’s compelling illustrations also mirror life’s big conundrums including identity, fate and power (or lack of power) with existential undertones. While these ‘darker’ themes are evident throughout, it is the presence of ‘hope’ on each and every page that alludes to the fact that darkness may overcome you, but hope is always there, “bright and vivid, quietly waiting” (Tan, 2001, p. 14). The red maple leaf is the most constant and consistent motif in the story, as it is ‘foregrounded’ from the very first page to the last (Humphrey, Droga, & Feez, 2012, p. 133). In every page the leaf is either behind the girl or in her eye line (but out of reach), this sends a strong message that hope may appear to be lost or unattainable but is always there.
Some say that the red tree is a depressing book that puts a ‘downer’ on life, but I think it honours the emotions that children are taught to leave in the bottom of the toy box while they reach for the brighter, more cheerful and desirable ones. Finally an author that doesn’t underestimate children of their ability to experience all that life has to offer the light and the dark of life. Tan is also able to capture the emotions that can come along with the journey of self-discovery and finding our place in the world.
It appears that the day ends with the same monotony as it began, with no reason to look forward to tomorrow, but then when you least expect it, hope is quietly waiting “right in front of you” (Tan, 2001, p. 15).
Shaun Tan describes The Red Tree as a story without narrative where the images are not explained by the text as they usually are in picture books (Tan, 2013, p. 1). I like to think of this story as an evolving interpretive narrative, as it is only when Tan’s story and the reader’s story (life experience) unite that the narrative is created.
The storyline can be broken in to three sections:
The day is boring, dull and repetitive, the girl feels lonely, like nothing interesting ever happens. This can be seen as the calm before the storm.
This section displays ‘the storm itself’, and brings with it feelings of anxiety and thoughts turn to the future and the uncertainty of “what you are supposed to do or who you are meant to be” (Tan, 2001, pp. 10-11). It is almost as if the girl is lost and looking for something to put her on the right path
1. The day begins
2. “All your troubles come at once”
3. “The day seems to end the way it began”
Shaun Tan’s aim was to “produce an illustrated book that is all about feelings, unframed by any storyline context, in some way going directly to the source” (Tan, 2013, p. 1). With only 122 delicately selected words in this non-sequential story, the exquisite artwork combining oil, wax, acrylic, collage and pencil drawings is the star of the show. The language in The Red Tree reflects our natural human reference to emotions as metaphors, such as monsters (i.e. green eyed monster), machines, waves of emotions and rollercoasters. Tan taps into this organic response and expresses it in both the visual and verbal language.
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For example on this page
“darkness overcomes you” darkness is represented as a floating fish. The written text and the images work together to enable to reader to empathise with the girl and in essence feel what ‘darkness’ might feel like.
While there is minimal verbal language in the book, the words that are included have maximum impact. There is no punctuation and no capital letters in the verbal text, creating a link between words and thoughts; it can be argued that we don’t think using punctuation. The word ‘you’ is repeated on almost every page enabling the reader to connect these thoughts to themselves and be taken on an emotional journey.The colour of the text is grey throughout the whole book, until the girl realises/notices the ‘hope’ in the end, then the writing changes to white at this stage, as the darkness changes to light
There are also a number of different languages used throughout the book, it is mainly written in English but if you look closer other languages (i.e Finnish) can also be spotted.
Some say that illustrators don’t get enough recognition for their hard work, but in this case it is the illustrations that create the story and Tan deserves all the credit he gets and more. The placement of the unnamed girl in each page says a lot about how she feels about herself, how she sees the world and how the world might see her. The fact that there are no contact images in the book disconnects the reader from her in a way, as we see her not as a character with personality but provides the opportunity to reconnect to her as a representation of ‘us’
The illustrations show both close ups and long shots, demonstrating that we can sometimes feel like a speck of dust in the comparison to the big things in the world and other times we feel larger than life.
Likewise the positioning of this girl (that may well be us) on each page demonstrates how some days we feel motivated and happy to face the world while other days we want to turn our back on it altogether.
Tan has managed to use colour and texture in each image to display deep themes and emotions in such a creative and imaginative way. McDonald (2013) explains the importance of colour choices in illustrations and that the colour red can create a mood of emotion, passion and danger (McDonald). Tan’s use of the colour red and orange for the tree and the ‘leaf of hope’ on each page enhances the darker emotions and alludes to an element of danger if hope was not there.
Juxtaposition is utilised in the images in both colour and objects. This image is a great example of this as the fish is so large compared to the girls smallness. This demonstrates how emotions can feel bigger than we can manage. The fish also is creating a shadow, like a surreal take on being followed by a black cloud. The mouth of the fish is open symbolising emptiness inside the girl with is amplified in the fish.
There are also many symbols and motif’s throughout the book that add to these metaphors to take the reader on the emotional journey. On this page fate is represented as a surreal board game where the nameless girl is holding dice while a monster figure in the background holds an hourglass and watches over her. The boarder in this image is similar to a board game with squares like that on a game of monopoly for example.
This means "Who Am I" in Finnish