The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan; Arthur A. Levine, $24.00, 192 pages, ages 14 and up.
Australian artist Shaun Tan has made his name creating surreal, slightly peculiar works of art with the ultimate goal of encouraging dialogue and social engagement–Tan worked on the science-fiction animated film WALL-E, for example–and in The Singing Bones he tackles the Grimm brothers’ literary canon with similar verve. Seventy-five pieces of original art are accompanied by a portion of text from obscure and beloved tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Inspired by Inuit and pre-Columbian stone carvings, Tan’s compositions are molded of earthy, unpretentious materials–papier-mâché and air-drying clay adorned with acrylic paint and shoe polish–resulting in art that looks like it has weathered the passage of time.
Many of the selections may not be well known to contemporary readers, at least not in the forms referenced here: in “Mother Trudy” an overly inquisitive young girl is turned into a block of wood and cast upon the hearth by a witch, and Tan’s sculpture depicts a demonic-looking old creature nestled comfortably in front of a recently lit blaze. A wicked stepmother decapitates her stepson in “The Juniper Tree” and the attending artwork is a disturbingly complex rendering of multiple moments that unfold in the narrative. Snow White and her long-forgotten sister Red Rose gleefully traipse on a magical bear in another excerpt. Though summarized in an annotated index, only the basic sketch of each story is provided, encouraging readers to explore the fairy tales separately.
Reigning master of macabre Neil Gaiman and renowned fairy-tale expert Jack Zipes provide thoughtful introductions and commentary on the enduring importance of the Grimm fairy tales for our generation.
The Singing Bones is a powerful examination of the range of human emotion, and how much greater that range can be for children, if adults will allow it.