This is one of the most beautiful, artistic, moving and complex picture books that you could ever come across. I’m not afraid to call it a real piece of art, because that’s what it is.
Shaun Tan is an incredibly talent artist, who’s becoming quite known thanks to his wonderful picture book/graphic novel, The Arrival, which made the New York Times 2007 notable children’s books list.
The Red Tree is just as good. It doesn’t tell a story, it describes a feeling. Depression, loneliness, anxiety, sadness…It arrives suddenly one morning, and nothing makes sense anymore. It comes in the form of black leaves, or of a gigantic fish. It makes you feel like you’re trapped in a bottle in a desert beach. The world feels like a cubist collage. You are overwhelmed by your troubles, which collapse over you all at once. Wonderful things pass by but you don’t notice them. You forget who you are or what’s your place in the world.
Until suddenly something lights up in your heart and happiness find its way in. It’s the red tree. A beautiful thing that appears in your room one day out of nowhere and makes you feel like life is worth living again.
Every page in this book could be looked at as one single painting, with its own title: “Darkness overcomes you” “nobody understands” “The world is a deaf machine” “without sense or reason”… Shaun Tan uses surreal images and symbols to give form to something so complex and intense that is hard to describe in words. So, surrealism becomes the only way to represent it, to express that sense of oppression and fear that has no reason but it’s all too real.
It’s a hard topic to choose for a children’s book. But I know that children too are sometimes victims of this deep illogical sadness, and a picture book that shows these feelings and give them visual shape could probably help them to understand them better, and give them hope. Because no matter how sad you are, there will always be a red tree waiting to touch your soul.
I would recommend it for adults as well, because in its simplicity (it’s a picture book) and yet in its incredibly poignant paintings, it goes at the heart of the problem, showing that everybody at some point experiences these feelings, but fortunately they won’t last forever.
Visit Shaun Tan's website for more informations on his eclectic works and to look at his wonderful illustrations.