Shaun Tan is best known for his unique and touching wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, and the three story collection, Lost and Found. Through his surreal illustrations and visual storytelling he explores themes such as immigration, colonization, depression, discovery, and friendship. The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook is a peek inside his creative process and his artist notebooks. The book features short essays by Tan introducing collections of images grouped by theme including untold stories; book, theater, and film; drawings from life; and notebooks. In one of the introductory essays, Tan writes:
“My stories generally begin with images rather than words, modest sketches drawn in a fairly aimless way. One of the joys of drawing is that meaning can be constantly postponed, and there is no real pressure to ‘say’ anything special when working privately in a sketchbook. Nevertheless, interesting or profound ideas can emerge of their own accord, not so much in the form of a ‘message,’ but rather as a strangely articulated questions. A scene or character seems to look back from the page and ask, ‘what do you make of this?’ A drawing feels successful to me when it is both clear and ambiguous, something I try to underscore by adding an equally ambiguous title. While there is no set meaning in any of these drawings, there is an invitation to seek one (for myself as much as any other audience).”
This is really how I “read” this book – open to ambiguity and constantly asking myself, “what is happening here?” Because the images have limited text attached to them – the ambiguous title he mentioned in the above quote, a footnote perhaps at the end of the book – the reader can explore the image and create their own meanings, their own stories. It is rather thrilling. For those familiar with Tan’s work, images in the “book, theatre, and film” section will likely be familiar, and the footnotes often prove especially interesting here. The book is rather small in shape, especially in contrast to other Shaun Tan books, and so while the content feels well suited for a place at the coffee table, it stands out as something quite different. While the main audience for this book will likely be those already familiar with (and enamored with) his work, I believe that this book will also appeal to those interested in the artistic process or who are looking for some creative inspiration.