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Review: Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

Rules of Summer
By Shaun Tan

Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)

ISBN: 9780545639125
Grades 3 and Up
Out Now

Find it at:
Schuler Books | Your Library

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.

Also reviewed by A Fuse #8 Production, Waking Brain Cells.

Watch Shaun Tan talk about Rules of Summer:

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one with conflicted feelings about this one. There’s no doubt that it’s gorgeous, but the first time I read through it I had no idea what was going on and was left with a general unease. Some of the illustrations are decidedly creepy! But, the next couple times I read through it, I noticed details that made the story clearer, or at least more compelling. In the end I enjoyed it, but I completely agree with your assessment that it’s better suited to an older audience.

    Also, thanks for the follow on Twitter! It’s always nice to find a fellow book loving Michigander!

    • Travis Jonker says

      Interesting side note: SLJ recommends this for grades 1-4 and Booklist says grades 5-12 – no overlap at all. It shows that different people read this book in very different ways.

  2. Appsters may want to know about the app – released late last month – it’s available in 11 languages. http://ow.ly/xKcLuh

  3. I LOVE this one. I’m not conflicted, but would stick it in the 3rd through 7th grade bracket! Ha! It’s one of those books that readers need to just sit alone with and spend time with.

    • Travis Jonker says

      I agree that it’s a spend time alone book – and a great book for the older ones

  4. Michelle Simpson says

    I had very similar thoughts as I read this book. When I went on Goodreads to rate it, I noticed that I was rating it lower than others had & began wondering what I’d missed… I agree that it’s an interesting book for older readers, but not a typical picture book, which certainly doesn’t have to be a bad thing! Anyway, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.