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Book Review: 'Tales From The Inner City'


Many of us probably have at least one skill we can confidently say is our major strength. Double that for the artist Shaun Tan. Not only does he illustrate his award-winning books. He also writes the stories that accompany them. He was an animator on the film "WALL-E". And he's also an Academy Award-winning director for the short film "The Lost Thing."

In his new book, "Tales From The Inner City," Tan creates a world where animals and humans coexist in what seem like unconventional spaces for the animals. Shaun Tan joins us from his home in Melbourne, Australia. Shaun, welcome to the program.

SHAUN TAN: Hello. Good to be here.

PFEIFFER: Shaun, your latest book is a collection of short stories and illustrations. And they're all about people and creatures living in close proximity and specifically in cities - crocodiles on the 87th floor of a skyscraper or bears in a courtroom. What is the genesis for these stories? How did your mind come up with these unusual situations?

TAN: If I knew the answer, I'd probably be far more productive (laughter) as a writer and illustrator. Basically, I keep a number of little sketch books. And I'm always jotting down random ideas and doodles. And over time, they coalesce around a particular subject. And in this case, it was wild animals coexisting with humans either well or not well within spices that are normally reserved exclusively for humans. And it really got me thinking more deeply about what a city is, why we live in cities and the way in which one species can control an entire environment to their own needs.

PFEIFFER: Shaun, one of the stories in the book is about dogs and their relationship with humans. And I think anyone who has loved a dog or felt loved by a dog will find this one touching. Could you read the small section on page 26?

TAN: Sure. It's just one verse of a poem.

(Reading) One day I threw my stick at you. You brought it back. My hand touched your ear. Your nose touched the back of my knee. And we were walking side by side as if it had always been this way.

PFEIFFER: What's interesting is that first line, one day I threw my stick at you. I didn't interpret that as a game of fetch. It was that originally the dogs and humans were kind of - if not enemies, it was the human wanted the dog to get away. But it turned into something different.

TAN: Yes.

PFEIFFER: Is that part of what you're trying to get across that development of that relationship?

TAN: I've always loved these images of aggressive action that's met with a compassionate action. In this case, the idea of somebody throwing a stick, such as a spear, as suggested in the illustration at a dog or a wolf. And this animal somewhat obliviously thinking hey, this is a fun game and grabbing it and bringing it back and disarming, you know, all the assumptions that a human might have.

PFEIFFER: And the drawings are very beautiful because they show a variety of different types of dogs and type of people over time.

TAN: Yeah; I mean, I'm not a dog owner myself, but I live next to a dog park. And at times I'm a very pessimistic person about humans and their relationship with the natural world. But the thing that always gives me hope is walking through that park and seeing people playing with their dogs.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned that you don't have a dog, but I feel like I've heard a parrot in the background. Do you - you do have a parrot. Are there some animals in your life?

TAN: Yes, we have a 18-year-old sun conure parrot, which is a small macaw in a way. That's basically quite a strange creature to live with that we've come to love him or her. As it turned out, after seven years, Diego laid an egg.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

TAN: And so that solved the problem of gender.

PFEIFFER: Diego was Diega.

TAN: (Laughter) Or Frida. I think....

PFEIFFER: Or, Frida, exactly. You called yourself a very pessimistic person. And I think that does come through....

TAN: (Laughter).

PFEIFFER: ....In some of this.

TAN: Sometimes. Sometimes.

PFEIFFER: Some of the themes - I mean, bureaucracy, depression, destruction. And somehow you address these in an illustrated book. Why that focus, that dark, heavy focus?

TAN: That's a good question because I've looked at a lot of my work over the years. And, you know, it's a collection of books that line my shelf. And I look very strange to me. You know, I don't necessarily recognize the person that created those books. A lot of people have pointed out that this book is quite dark, but they've also been careful to say, you know, but it's very funny at the same time. And certainly, there's something about the colorfulness of the illustrations and a certain lightness of the fictionality of the scenarios that makes them quite digestible. But hopefully, it does get people thinking about some deeper issues. And I do want people to be a little bit disturbed, as well, because I was while I was researching this book.

PFEIFFER: Shaun Tan is the author and illustrator of "Tales From The Inner City." Shaun, thank you for talking with us.

TAN: Thanks. It's been great chatting with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.