Book review: The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan

Tan, Shaun. The Singing Bones.  Arthur A. Levine, 2016. $24.99. 185p. ISBN 978-0-545-94612-4. Ages 12+. P8Q10

tan-singing-bonesAustralian artist, writer, and Oscar-winning film winner has delved into a new artform for his latest book: sculpture. The purpose of his creations is to illustrate 75 Grimm fairy tales. Each two-page spread provides a brief “teaser” of an ancient folk tale showing its “hard bones” and a full-page photograph of the figures made from clay and papier-mâché, finished with acrylics, oxidized metal powder, and shoe polish. The Artist’s Note explains that the figures vary between 2.25 and 16 inches although the photographs make them appear to be similar. Notes continue to explain that Tan also used a diversity of other substances such as gold leaf and rice. The feeling of the evocative figures in the beautifully staged and lighted images is of stone carvings, sometimes grotesque and frequently abstract, with pre-historic style. Tan started the project four years ago after his German editor asked him to do cover art and a few other illustrations for Philip Pullman’s 2012 Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. His work on that book evolved into this “art book,” released in 2015. The new edition includes a foreword by Neil Gaiman and an introduction by scholar Jack Zipes about the Grimms’ work on these folk tales.

Verdict: This elegant and haunting book stands among the top of titles that I have seen in the last five decades although it may be more for adults than youth. As Gaiman wrote, “I want to hold these sculptures, to pick them up. I want to squeeze them in my hands.” They bring new life to these timeless stories.

January 2017 review by Nel Ward.

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