“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan’s reflections on relationship between human and animal world

Those who loved Shaun Tan’s award-winning “Tales from Outer Suburbia” (a compilation of surrealistic short stories) would be delighted with his latest creation, the sister volume “Tales from the Inner City”. Shaun Tan suggested that the basic premise he’s set himself for this latest book was to “think about an animal in a city. Why is it there? How do people react to it? What meaning does it suggest?”

The book has been showered with awards, as is the case with most creations by Shaun Tan, the 2011 winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (the biggest prize in literature world). “Tales from the Inner City” has won the 2020 Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration, included as a notable book in the older readers category in the 2019 CBCA Awards as well as being long-listed and short-listed within a number of other awards.

The latter Tales are a compilation of 25 short stories, both authored and illustrated by Shaun, each dedicated to a certain animal species relationship with humans, in an urban settling.  This beautiful Shaun Tan tribute to the sentient animal world is in the form that he refers to as “speculative fiction”, told through the lens of the unique surrealistic vision, typical for both his writing and  art.

 “The animals of the world exist for their own reason”, the author reminds us opening the book with this quote by Alice Walker.

In the book launch conversation with Nick Stathopoulos [1], Shaun said that the more he studied animals the more it occurred to him that they are just “different people”… This book was 10 years in the making. It is the kind of book that Shaun himself likes to read, he notes: “short stories and lots of interesting pictures”. The stories don’t have titles, because animals won’t refer to themselves as “orcas”, “horses” or “butterflies”, he explains. In lieu of the titles he has drawn a silhouette of the respective animal on the page preceding each story, which looks like this:

“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials

All the visual titles together make for this awesome table of content:

“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials

Whilst Shaun is clearly cognisant of issues such as destruction of animal habitat, the cruelties of factory farming and many other deprivations and injustices, he says that this book is not so much about these issues, but about “the vague and confusing sense as contemporary humans, especially city-dwellers, that life has become very strange and complex against the backdrop of this massive crisis”. [2]

When an allusion to animal cruelty or misery is offered, it strikes with a goosebumps causing proposition, like this one:

“Horses knew this more than most: the greatest curse of any animal is to be worth money to men”.

“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials

In contrast, the celebration of natural world’s awesomeness is a beautiful poetic piece, like the story of snails:

“…those gigantic snails, finding each other in the byways and intersections of our great city and making love right then and there, answering every shout of indignation with grace and pride and the slowest of slow dances in the dark…We would be so sad If they ever went away, leaving us all alone with our small ideas about love.”

The story of a pig living at the back of an apartment startles from the start, stating that the pig is “sinking” or:

“disappearing, bit by bit, piece by piece – or rather slice by slice… One day it will be completely gone, and we’ll have to get another pig. Then it will happen all over again. Does it hurt? Does it make the pig sad? Dad says no, and he must be right, because the pig doesn’t cry or make much noise”…

“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials

Both text and art in this book are thought-provoking, to say the least… A giant dead fish, board members turned into frogs, crocodiles living on the 87th floor of a high-rise building or orcas flying in the sky… Think Shaun Tan’s imagination at its best!

Whilst one might feel an urge to seek more clarity or explanation for some of Shaun’s bizzare imagery, he says this: “The moment I can explain an image I discard it as bad”. He prefers his verbal and pictorial plots to remain open to individual interpretation.

When Nick Stathopoulos asked Shaun to comment on the distorted proportions of some images (for example, a giant cat swimming through swelling waves with a tiny girl perched on its head), Shaun explained that the size of his images reflects the value he wishes to ascribe to them. “We ascribe a lot of value to objects that are not valuable”, says Shaun, suggesting gold as an example of having no real value for human survival, but being perceived as such. Whereas a chicken, for example, is much more valuable, “try and create a chicken”, Shaun suggested, “it would be impossible!”, yet we don’t think of a chicken as being more valuable than gold… The exaggerated size in Shaun’s pictures is thus drawing attention to beings or objects potentially undervalued by human perception.

“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials

Let me leave you with a few more images of “Tales from the Inner City” awesome illustrations. These are a fraction of the whole. If you are a Shaun Tan fan I’m sure you’d need no further motivation to check out the rest of this 224-page newest manifestation of this creator’s genius.

“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials
“Tales from the Inner City” Shaun Tan's reflections on relationship between human and animal world Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Kate Greenaway Medal Award, Shaun Tan, Young Adult Fiction Home Library Essentials

Check out our other posts on Shaun Tan’s work here:

“What Miscellaneous Abnormality is That?”

“The Lost Thing”, the story that keeps on giving

“The Red Tree”

[1] Friday, 12 October 2018, 18:30 – 19:30, Wesley Mission Theatre (220 Pitt St, Sydney). Shaun Tan in-conversation with artist Nick Stathopoulos about his latest book “Tales from the Inner City”

[2] http://shauntan.net/books.html, “More about “Tales from the Inner City”” (comments by Shaun Tan)

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