By John Marsden
Illustrations by Shaun Tan
Many of Shaun Tan's books cannot be categorized as picture books for children. His books are difficult to pin down - allegorical, slightly satirical and surreal. The pictures may be surreal, but carry a strong realistic resonance to the world around us and the history of humankind.
The Rabbits is one of his earlier books, much before his landmark and classic 'The Arrival'; but there are some interesting relationships between them. While The Arrival is about a person's long trudge to a new place and his trials at adjusting to a foreign environment; Rabbits is about a similar travel but with different agenda at heart - an agenda to impose their own will and power in the new environment. While one book talks about adjustment and the other talks about colonization. Although the subject being dwelt is two sides of the same coin; the illustrations between these two books are entirely different. The illustrations for Rabbits is similar in nature to The Red Tree. The Red Tree and The Rabbits deal with anxious and depressing subjects most of the time and the illustrations are bright and surreal. The Arrival is a book of hope, but the illustrations are done in dull sepia tones.
Although the text of the book is written by John Marsden, this book looks like one that can come only from that unique stable of Shaun Tan. His illustrations are over-powering and the text similar in nature to the books that Shaun Tan has himself written.
The Rabbits is told from a perspective and voice of a kangaroo. The kangaroo watches in mild curiosity as some new comers from the across the seas (Rabbits) arrive to their land. They are initially as curious and slowly as their numbers increase, they take over the land. The Rabbits take over the grass and leave it barren and dusty; impose their customs; take their children and basically stamp their footprints all over the new world. The book ends with a heart-rending cry.
The book can be read at multiple levels. The book could be read as a simple story of how rabbits introduced by Europeans took over Australia and how it affected the ecology of the continent - as they bred faster and used the same vegetation for food. It could also be read as allegory to colonization and how it erodes, alienates and totally devastates the local vegetation, culture and people. When the book is read along with the book The Arrival, it did bring to my mind another disturbing thought - when does migration become colonization?
Do I recommend this book - Of course, wholeheartedly. And a warning(This is a fair warning to any book by Shaun Tan) - Do not pick them up for your children because they have pictures and looks like a picture book. As he himself says in his website, it is a for older readers and some children might get a lot out of this book.
Now, let me go back to drooling over the illustrations.