Alison Padley-Woods invites children's writer and illustrator, Tita Berredo, 

to tell us about an illustrator who has inspired her.

I believe that we all are touched by art throughout our lives, but as artists, this contributes to constants and changes in our own perspectives and work. Many artists have influenced me in different stages of my life and career. Illustrators such as Jean de Brunhoff, Maurice Sendak, Sir John Tenniel, Beatrix Potter, Suzy Lee, Roger Mello, Alexandre Rampazo, Renato Moriconi, and many others contributed to this puzzle in construction, in constant change and discovery, that is my own style.

For this difficult task of choosing a single illustrator to talk about, I decided to use the inspiration criteria as a whole. To choose someone whose work has spoken to me in all aspects of picture-book making: storytelling, technique, format approach, theme, characters and creative process. That illustrator would be Shaun Tan.

Shaun Tan was born and raised in Western Australia. He spent his childhood illustrating stories and drawing robots and dinosaurs. Tan studied Fine Arts, English Literature and History at the University of Western Australia. In 1995 he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and decided to work as an artist. He is mostly recognised for his picture-book The Lost Thing (2000), adapted to an Oscar-winning animation film in 2011. But anyone familiar with his work knows him well for other great books like The Red Tree (2001), The Arrival (2006), and Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008). Amongst dozens of prizes, Tan has won the most prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

Left and centre left, The Red Tree by Shaun Tan (2001), Lothian Books
Right and centre right, Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan (2008) - AAL Books

I first encountered Tan’s work when I was living in Singapore and was starting a career as a professional illustrator and picture-book maker myself. My husband, who is an art appreciator, was mesmerised with the cover of Rules of Summer (2013) which is my favourite Shaun Tan book. To me, that is what it is, a masterpiece. This book is why I believe that a good picture-book speaks a universal language — when place, age, and gender are no longer relevant and the story takes over. My husband, a grown-up, number-oriented, serious adult was moved to tears with that little portal to his inner-child. So was I, and there began my admiration for Shaun Tan.

Inspired by his childhood memories of growing up with his older brother in Perth, Tan imagined dozens of crazy things that might have happened during summer in the dull flatness of Western Australia. The premise and storyline are so simple and yet truly deep. It touches a special place in my heart because that is exactly what I experienced in my own childhood, when I would spend the holidays in our summer house in the countryside of Brazil. Away from screens, adult interference, and any child-indulging activities, my brother and I were left with nothing but the scenery and domestic objects to create our adventures and play. I was very fortunate to meet Shaun Tan once at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore, and was able to express my love for his book because of my adventures of being a child with loads of time. We both agreed that to children, boredom can be a portal to imagination.

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan (2013), Lothian Books

It is extra special when you find a book that brings warm memories and emotions. But above all, to me, Rules of Summer represents all the most desirable qualities of a picture-book concept. It is imaginative, reflective, inquisitive, unexpected and incredibly creative. Not only are the illustrations a stunning collection of oil-painted canvasses originally born as small pencil vignettes, but the storytelling is a wonderful journey. The synergy of the short ambiguous text with the confusing surrealistic illustrations make the perfect match for free association and creative meaning. Shaun Tan gives freedom of interpretation to the readers, so they have an active role when reading and can add their own perspectives and personal experiences to the story. This book is food for childish thought, almost as if kids were privy to the author’s innermost thoughts, creating a true author/reader collaboration.

The interesting thing is that the book reflects Tan's creative process. He would routinely draw small vignettes of random scenes of his brother and him in different adventures without necessarily thinking of a storyline to follow. This gave him freedom to explore the doodles letting them take the lead. It is amazingly insightful how much you learn about the characters the more you draw them; it also helps the story to develop organically. For Tan, the lack of narrative structure of the loose drawings reflected what he experienced as a child. Whilst they would have disparate adventures, the emotional link with his brother connected the whole story.

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan (2013), Lothian Books

Style is a bit of an abstract concept to me. It can have deeper or wider meaning other than a characteristic way of drawing. It also has to do with keeping your essence as an artist even when stepping completely away from your usual stage. So when others see or read your work, they can always spot you there. Shaun Tan is a living example of that. It does not matter what age or genre he writes for, or the medium or format that he chooses to illustrate a story, you can always tell that he is behind them. 

In The Singing Bones (2016), Tan produced a collection of seventy-five clay figurines inspired by the Grimm's fairy tales. The figurines were theatrically displayed under atmospheric lighting and photographed to accompany extractions from each story. Most illustrators may never explore producing art other than on flat paper, but Tan showed an inventive visual narrative that nevertheless demonstrates the consistence of his work.

The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan (2016), Walker Books

In Eric (2016), Tan made the book format and illustrations quite small to match the main character. In greyscale vignettes, the light graphite pencil illustrations help keeping a quiet atmosphere to match the curious and shy little character. A hint of colour will come later in the last spread, also the only full bleed in the book. It is a nice and warm ending that makes us notice the little character’s departure even more. A sweet and delicate trace for a nice and warm little book. Very different toTan’s heavy lines and intensive depth that gives gravitas to his silent graphic novel The Arrival (2006); also about a foreigner but under the more mature subject of immigration.

Eric by Shaun Tan (2016), Allen & Unwin
The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2006) Hodder, Children’s Books

An incredibly versatile illustrator as well as a writer, Tan transits effortlessly through different book formats and media in the varied ways that he approaches story-telling. Yet, he is always fully present and recognisable, having total freedom to dictate the narrative because he does it so well.
Being an artist is a curious thing. Inspiration is not far away from creation. Whatever speaks to us from the outside will only reflect something that is already inside of us. We can only wish to find those special ones that help us express ourselves. Shaun Tan’s work has spoken to me in many levels. I will always be thankful for that and hope to express even a bit of what it gave me.

Header Picture, Rules of Summer, by Shaun Tan, (2013), Lothian Books,


Tita Berredo is a children's writer and illustrator born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She has a Master's degree in Children's Literature and Illustration from Goldsmiths University of London, and is represented by Fairbank Literary Representation. Tita lives in Glasgow, where she coordinates the children's writers and illustrators local groups for SCBWI, AOI, and SOA. Tita also leads the Scottish CWIG as a committee member of the SOA and is a picture book reviewer for My Book Corner.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent piece on a superb illustrator and picture book maker, well done Tita, I love his work, this is a fine tribute!


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