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The Viewer

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The Viewer was the first picture book I illustrated, and developed from my intial meeting with Gary Crew, an Queensland writer and academic best known for mind-bending novels and picture books such as Strange Objects and The Water Tower. We soon realised common interests and tastes in science fiction, horror and illustrated fiction. We are also both artists and authors in different proportions; Gary originally wanted to be an artist, and I originally wanted to be a writer! We also share a similar sense of humour, and an attraction to dark and disturbing themes, as evidenced by The Viewer, which was published a couple of years later. Gary Crew has been awarded the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the year four times: twice for Book of the Year for Young Adult Older Readers (Strange Objects in 1991 and Angel’s Gate in 1993) and twice for Picture Book of the Year with First Light in 1993 (illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe) and The Watertower (illustrated by Steven Woolman) in 1994. Gary’s illustrated book, Memorial (with Shaun Tan) was awarded the Children’s Book Council of Australia Honour Book in 2000 and short listed for the Queensland Premier’s Awards. He has also won the Wilderness Society Award, the Whitley Award and the Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction. Try reading the sentences aloud without the added words in the middle. The class will use similar grammatical features in the next lesson when they write their own character description.

It took me multiple reading to enjoy this as much as I do now and, ultimately, fully interpret what I think the story is sharing with us. As always with both Gary Crew AND Shaun Tan, I need a bit of warming up to appreciate them so this took an evening of close reading to glean some understanding. Now draw attention to the use of dashes in this character description (slide 2). There are three examples where dashes are used in pairs as parentheses – what effect does it have when this extra information is added? Tan's writing and illustrations are always very thought-provoking. The Viewer is the story of a young boy who regularly finds treasures at the local dump. One day he comes home with a box full of instruments for looking at things, including a viewfinder toy. Through this he looks at the pictures, which appear to include moments in world history. When he looks again they have changed. Eventually he crawls inside the viewer....

Lessons:

The Viewer was a much more collaborative project than most picture book creation, where there is often – and strangely – little direct communication between author and illustrator, something I was familiar with as an illustrator of many short stories and book covers. Usually a text is written and then given to an illustrator to consider, a process overseen by an editor. Gary and I discussed concept, imagery and book design together from the outset, before any text was written, along with our mutual editor, Helen Chamberlin at Lothian Books, then an independent publisher based in Melbourne. I had to read this a few times to capture and fully appreciate the story; however I still feel like if I looked at it again I would notice more that I didn't before (the best kind of story)! To browse photos within a folder, open a photo from the Folders view or File Explorer, then swipe right or use the arrow keys to see the next item.

There are a few key ideas that emerge; that all the mechanisms work to record and re-play images of violence and death, especially the collapse of successive human civilisations, whether by natural disaster or self-destruction. The use of circles, spirals and other cyclical patterns through the illustrations emphasis the idea of life and death revolutions, that things are on one hand mortal and immortal in their patterns. There are numerous ancient symbols of this, such as the serpent biting its own tail, and the concept of time as cyclical, rather than linear, is historically much more dominant. The belief that civilisation progresses continuously is ultimately a temporary illusion; things either change radically or collapse, the current ecological crisis of our own age proves the case. Still we go on as if oblivious to the slow disaster unfolding before us. Thought-provoking! Amazing illustrations and a story that will really make your mind work. I read this with a year 5 class and the pictures alone inspired some wonderful creative writing. The discussion we had at the end of the story was so lively because there are so many possible interpretations. The class produced some wonderful artwork based on this too. Shaun Tan's art is as always sensational. It works perfectly with Crew's wording enhancing and adding to rather and just accompanying the story. The second half of the story is focused on the art. The art within the cells of the discs tells the history of the human race. The art in these cells is almost mindblowing in its detail and variety. The colouring is so beautiful, mostly realistic but some are slightly off but it is all perfect. But it's not all about the cells its all the details around them which I won't go into. Earlier in the book when the reader first meets Tristan the colouring is vastly different, it's bright and white spaces befitting the child focus. The junkyard is smartly done it's all orange scales. As with all Tan work there is an insane amount of detail that you will always find something new. Together they tell a story of exploration and history in a way only they can. It is just beautiful. But I will say I was always going to love this I have never read a Shaun Tan I wouldn't recommend to everyone.

The images were detailed and interesting, you could have good discussions about the images with a KS2 class, and have fun deciphering the hidden meanings and events that the viewer shows us. Thank you for posting this - it looks fantastic. However, the version of the book that I've got doesn't have all the text that you've referred to in your planning. I would love to have the full text version as it is so rich - do you know where you got yours? Shaun Tan's illustrations are incredibly detailed and eerily beautiful, which fits Gary Crew's story perfectly:

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