The highly coveted Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration 2020 has been awarded to the magnificent Tales From the Inner City by Shaun Tan. Described by the man himself as ‘a strange book for strange times,’ this darkly beautiful collection of stories and paintings explores the dynamics of human and animal urban co-existence. City-dwelling animals, birds and fish live alongside us, submitting to our authority. Tan envisages what would happen if they tried to reclaim the cities and how humanity is inexorably entwined with the natural world in memory and spirit.
The first thing to marvel at is Tan’s artistry. Pages of lustrous and evocative paintings, accompanied by creaturely tales, from the humble bee to the crocodile waiting patiently to reclaim its ancestral primordial swamp.
Inevitably some of the stories involve environmental catastrophe. We meet fish, whose oceans have become so polluted that they’re forced to move into the sky, and frogs who enact amphibious retribution on a corporation that has choked their wetlands with plastic bags. But for me, the most affecting stories are those concerning the place of animals within our collective memory.
Tan’s centrepiece is a meditation on the historical co-dependence of man and dog. Strangers until the first stick is thrown. Then ‘my hand touched your ear, your nose touched the back of my knee.’ Walking side by side as ‘time flowed out before us.’
The accompanying illustrations are worth the price of the book alone.
A later tale, on the role of the horse in urban history, brought tears to my eyes. Tan reminds us that horses ‘carry a whole city on their backs.’ Before the advent of diesel, they drove our crankshafts and conveyor belts, and when their lifeblood ran low we turned them into candle fat and dog food. Only their souls are of no use to us. They shake themselves free and we imagine their beautiful spirits galloping across the rooftops of the cities they built.
Tales From the Inner City by Shaun Tan is published by Walker Studios, 224 pages.