Rules of Summer
By Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)
Grades 3 and Up
Usually, when I write a review, I have a sense of what I think about a book before I start. That’s the point, right? Reviewer 101. But given the way my opinion keeps swinging on this book, I may be working out my thoughts as I go – forgive me. Sometimes vexing, other times brilliant, Rules of Summer is a picture book that takes decoding but rewards the effort.
This is what I learned last summer:
Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.
In a surreal landscape, two boys (seemingly brothers) navigate the emotional ups and downs of one wild summer. Each page turn reveals a new rule the older boy imposes on the younger. Some are obvious while others (see above) are more mysterious. What with all the bossing, it isn’t long before a brawl breaks out. The older boy locks the younger away. But they eventually reconcile – just in time for the last day of the season.
The last page is an important piece of the book – the boys sitting on the couch, behind them a wall full of curiously familiar drawings – all images from earlier in the book. Did the boys create their adventures through their drawings, or were they simply documenting their experience? How readers digest this conclusion will influence their opinion of everything that came before it.
I must admit, my first reading of this book left me disappointed. I love The Arrival and was hoping Rules of Summer would be a return to plot after Tan’s last couple non sequitur-filled releases. It’s the man’s style, but I wish there was just a bit more context to invite readers in. Tan’s dedication is telling: “For the little and the big”. While the text is spare, it’s a sophisticated book. Rules of Summer will be much more effective with older students than young. I read this with 4th graders and I felt they were just beginning to appreciate it the nuance and subtext. Some were confused and didn’t like it, others dug the mystery.
The painterly illustrations are astounding. Tan is a master, highly skilled in composition, color, lighting. Just take a look at that last wordless spread – the still life. Seriously, the art in this book is out of control. Each and every image is gallery worthy.
Okay, okay – I think I sorted out my feelings. Just in time for the end – whew. I think I’m lamenting what the book isn’t – a picture book for the typical picture book audience – than celebrating what it is: a stunner for older readers, many of whom will revel in it’s eerie inscrutability. Keep us guessing, Mr. Tan.
Watch Shaun Tan talk about Rules of Summer: