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Picture Book Beats: ‘Always know the way home’ and other Rules of Summer

Rules of Summer is a book for children, yes, but it’s also one that roots the adults in their past and in their now. Between ‘never wait for an apology’ and ‘always know the way home’ lies the universe that some relationships traverse with ease while in which some others falter and wither away

books, books for kids, picture books, picture book recommendations, book recommendations, Rules of Summer, illustrated books, Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan, parenting, indian express newsRules of Summer, written and illustrated by Shaun Tan; published by Hachette, Australia, 2013. (Photo: Richa Jha)

By Richa Jha

With the monsoon having hit most parts of the country, now’s a good time to bring out Rules of Summer (written and illustrated by Shaun Tan, published by Hachette, Australia, 2013). The summer has always found a special place in literature. It gets seen as the time to explore, introspect and grow; not surprising, therefore, to find ourselves talking about summers with such fondness.

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But that’s not the only reason for getting Rules of Summer to Picture Book Beats. It’s the rules part of the book that has my heart, and we’ll soon see why.

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It’s not always easy for me to fall in love with a Shaun Tan book. I usually feel overwhelmed – almost overpowered – by the mind-blowing depth and abstraction that goes deeper than my subconscious can access within itself. But there is something arresting about Rules of Summer. And I suspect it is to do with how the many summers through life have helped me discover myself, one layer at a time.

Even before the words kick in, the stage is set for the evocativeness that is to follow: silhouettes of an older boy gently leaning towards a younger one, whispering something into his years. That this faceless older brother (or best pal) and the younger one are seen as sharing a secret, a plan, a joke, a gossip, whatever that bonds them closer in that moment on a deserted lane in a provincial industrial town with smokeless chimneys sorting from the buildings in the foreground and background is one of the surest, most beautiful opening settings I have seen in a picture book. Something that takes me back to my growing up days in the coal capital of our country. And it makes my heart ache for that older confidante that I didn’t have. Would my life have panned out differently if I had?

Rules of Summer, like most picture books, is not a book that you can absorb just by reading the text. It’s only when you ‘read’ the illustrations too that the full import of the book’s profoundness hits you. Told from the perspective of the younger boy (but never stated so overtly), the rules are simple, ordinary, even quirky, at the beginning, if one were to read them in isolation. They start off with one of the most random lines found in children’s literature:

‘Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.’

On the facing page, these words then get transformed into a most fantastical visual of a red-sock tale with a million possibilities, as we see the two boys cowering along the boundary wall of a house compound with a monstrous red rabbit with menacing eyes eyeing a lone red sock left hanging on the clothesline, and about to peep in down that wall. In that one moment, the book blends the normal with the fantastical in a typically bizarre and surreal Shaun Tan landscape.

And what a magnificent storyteller he is! His picture books offer no plain explanations – linear or circular – to the readers. Things may or may not be, as they appear. That there never is one truth, and that never can be only one way of interpreting what our eyes see, and that you see what you are in that one moment, is a potent awareness reaffirmed for the reader.

In Rules of Summer, a child reading this could spend hours hooked to this one spread thinking of all the many beginnings and ends to the red-sock ‘rule’, as indeed to every other of the fifteen more that follow. But it is the adult reading this book who is in a position to gauge more accurately, simply by the virtue of having lived many more seasons than the boys in the book, the veracity of and the wisdom behind each of the rules.

‘Never eat the last olive at a party’ (because you get the dirtiest, most condescending, of glances from the grown-ups around you), or ‘never drop your jar’ (because you will have no way to hold the red dragonflies that you catch while your brother fills up his), or ‘never leave the back door open overnight’ (because you’ve no idea about what you’ll wake up to and have to make amends for, with your cross big brother hmmmphing away at the hall doorway)!

These delightful ruminations (and priceless learnings) start getting deeper as we progress through the book:

‘Never ruin a perfect plan’ or ‘never argue with an umpire’ or ‘never forget the password’ or ‘never lose a fight’, each showing a range of dynamics between an older sibling and the younger one, throbbing with its good share of bonhomie, arbitrariness, firmness, meanness, the power play, et al, because big brothers are fun, but they are also mean and controlling, and big brothers won’t let you have your way, and they will always win a fight and make you feel like a worm.

And just when some old memory of being made to feel like a worm by someone we have immensely loved gets triggered, we get to the most precious rule of all which dug into me like no other five words have in a long time:

‘Never wait for an apology.’

Like with the younger boy in this, we adults do it, ever so often – waiting for eternity for the apology that may never come.

And like with the younger boy, when you wait for an apology for a perceived affront, you are condemning yourself to moments of lone-despair as you lock yourself away from the world, drifting further and further away from the one you are running away from, and you stew alone in your hot furnace as you sulk, and sulk and sulk some more until you feel lost, rudderless, hopeless and forgotten.

But – and and – then when you have been sinking, having lost all hope, there comes your big brother, emerging from nowhere, running after you to pull you from your self-imposed isolation. The younger one’s brother does so, breezing in on his bike, carrying the ‘bolt cutters’ that he would need to bring down the walls the younger one has forced himself behind.

The older one comes because mean big brothers also know love and concern and togetherness.

In a state like this, there can be only one summer rule at play:

‘Always know the way home.’

This wordless double spread where we see the siblings on the bicycle together, obviously post a patch-up, the younger one perched on the bars and the older one pedalling, homeward bound, is an odd happy mix of the pleasing and the poignant.

Rules of Summer is a book for children, yes, but it’s also one that roots the adults in their past and in their now. Between ‘never wait for an apology’ and ‘always know the way home’ lies the universe that some relationships traverse with ease while in which some others falter and wither away because either their wait for apology doesn’t end, or if it does end, they can no longer find their way home together. Brilliant is an understatement for a picture book like this.

I am on my 7th reading of the book when I spot a crow on the first page. Then on the second, and on the third, and because I know I will be rewarded with its sighting on every page to follow, I allow myself to become a child and explore every single brush stroke of the artwork. That is how I discover the blink-and-you-miss bat hanging upside down, the snails invading the television set (and our minds?), the false tail coming off that ruins a ‘perfect plan’. I notice the ‘stranger’ replacing the younger one in the photograph of the siblings on the wall, all because he hadn’t learnt the golden rule yet of never giving ‘(your) keys to a stranger’. And I get myself to relearn to eat up a picture book with my eyes, just the way children do when they pore over one.

That’s my rule this summer. Never turn the page of a picture book until you’ve lived a hundred versions of that one frame in your mind. That’s the surest way to experience what wonder feels like.


Richa Jha, a picture book devourer, reads, writes, publishes, gifts, buys, borrows and hoards them for herself. She believes that there is no better life coach than a picture book created just right. In this monthly column, she’ll share some of personal favourites. 

At their best, picture books are powerful meditations on life, its quintessential soul-curry, as I call them. Pick them up- no matter where on the reading spectrum you see yourself – a book novice or an incorrigible bibliophile. They will never let you down.

P.S. – She’s also on a mission of sorts to convert everyone into a picture book devourer. The world needs more of us.

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First published on: 04-07-2022 at 06:51:34 pm
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