2020 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal Winner Speech

Shaun Tan, June 2020

I’m sure I echo the sentiments of fellow shortlisted authors and illustrators in expressing how brilliant it is to just be considered by the hard-working judges of these awards, and I’ll begin this acceptance by directing attention back to the shortlist of wonderful titles across both Medals, each unique and magical in their own way. Certainly, among them there is a book that will speak to you, that will invite your own deep consideration and judgment; please read them all if you can.

Of course, anyone who has had to judge art will know what a difficult task this is, a bit like a dog show, only with gazelles, bears, parrots and salamanders, and a whole lot of made-up animals thrown in. An impossible decision that you then have to explain to an audience, for heaven’s sake. But to speak of such diversity as a competition of differences would be completely amiss. Writers, illustrators, editors, publishers, librarians, booksellers and readers – all astute critics and judges themselves – are essentially united, especially when it comes to books for young readers. That is, united in asking honest, well-crafted, entertaining, funny, disturbing and compelling questions about the world around us. I entered this world in the mid-90s and never looked back, it’s such a fantastic community of good people, and I’ll take this opportunity to thank you all for inspiring me.

With that in mind, I must thank Walker Books for being so enthusiastic, kind and downright jolly about my strange collection of often pretty grim urban animal stories: to Ben Norland, Karen Lotz, Frances Taffinder and the Walker team, and especially Nghiem Ta for her exacting attention to design, the vaguest shades of magenta, and innovative boxes. You all work very hard, with conviction and imagination that does not go unnoticed. Equal appreciation to Jodie Webster, Erica Wagner, Sophie Splatt and the terrific team at Allen & Unwin in Australia, and to Arthur Levine, Phil Falco, Emily Clement and Scholastic Books in the US. Thanks to Helen Chamberlin for her sage advice. To my agent and voice of reason, Sophie Byrne, high five. And to my wife and children, biggest thanks of all for your love and support. Even if some of that comes in the form of a tiny, unauthorised hand-prints on a canvas that’s not yet dry.

Actually, parenting small children during the years spent developing Tales from the Inner City has shifted my universe more than a little when I think about literature for young people. With the recent pandemic lockdown, shortly following the devastating climate-induced bushfires here in Australia, not to mention all manner of embarrassing human behaviour in the global political dystopia we find ourselves in, I can’t help but be mindful that our children are inheriting a world very different from the one we knew, or think we still know. It’s a world of decline, distraction, disruption and wilful ignorance; a place where closeted, fearful minds can easily speak louder than inspiring and open ones, a playground for repulsive sociopaths and political opportunists, a nightmare for the weak and stateless. And then there’s a small matter of an overheating planet already in the throes of a mass extinction event.

But it’s also a world of decency, reason, clarity, brilliant minds and enlightened curiosity, billions of good hearts, of compassionate genius, of massive accumulated knowledge and means of access, of lessons learned from a vast library of recorded experience, of good fights won, of good art. It’s also a world, thank goodness, of young people. How those young individuals define and navigate a path through these competing forces of enlightenment and darkness is not for any artist or writer to say. No instructions are necessarily going to help, no moral fable, no emergency plan, no bullet points, no algorithm. When the next unpredictable ‘black swan’ event reshapes our collective future, who is to say that even our current ideas of progressive thinking, so self-evident now, may become rapidly antiquated. Future generations will always have to figure it out for themselves, with what they already carry in the tangled DNA of their minds and hearts. How they think and feel, how the truth of reason relates to the truth of emotion, how far their imagination can reach or not reach, how they can perceive a problem in order to solve it, how they can see things from a different point of view, enough to know there is a problem in the first place. They have to find their own way, a good way, whatever that is.

It may sound cliched, but this really is where books come into their own. They are the steadfast, future-proofed oasis of private reflection, of asking good questions. Where good answers fail, good questions go to work. What if you were somebody else? What if your life suddenly changed? What if everything you know might not be right? Good books, good words and images, are not all-purpose sermons, and are in fact hamstrung by the cultural limits of their authors and illustrators, don’t we know it. But they are at least the start of new conversations. They are reminders to check the connective wiring between the heart and the brain. Did that story look and sound right, did it say something you felt to be true? Or was it false and disagreeable? Did that illustration strike you as the echo of your very own dream, and why? Why do things look the way they do anyway, and, more importantly, how might they be different? It’s always worth reminding the broader public, outside of the children’s book world, what’s at stake here. The ability to stretch our imagination toward an unknown future, not away from it. It doesn’t get more fundamental than that. Therefore, I am especially happy to know that this Medals process allow for young people to explore, critique and question the shortlisted books in their shadowing groups and choose their own winner.

I’ll end by bringing it back to a more personal and immediate level, to say how honoured I am to be receiving this award, the Kate Greenaway medal. I grew up in suburban Western Australia, about as far away from the UK as you can get – further than the moon actually, because at least you can see the moon from London. However, thanks to the local public libraries of my youth, it was well within a British orbit, including the wonderful reach of creators such as Quentin Blake, Shirley Hughes, Raymond Briggs and so many others I can now count as peers. That notion would have been unthinkable to me as a kid, not least because I believed great stories came from elsewhere – anywhere but my own terminally ordinary, broad-accented neighbourhood – usually somewhere with hedgerows and elevenses, whatever they were. I wrote my first stories at school beneath a picture of a queen that didn’t live in Australia, certainly not Perth, who probably didn’t know where the best banksia flowers grew or how to handle a blue-tongued lizard. The world of adults was strange like that, loving pictures of distant queens, but kids know all about strange. Strange is good, because it means anything is still possible. And it should not go unnoticed that the emblem of Western Australia is the black swan. Until a Dutchman spotted it in 1697, the saying ‘all swans are white’ was actually a common European shorthand for absolute truth.

On the matter of odd animals, my mother once accidentally read George Orwell’s Animal Farm to my brother and I, thinking from the opening chapter that it was a fairytale suitable for small children. She soon became aware of her possible misjudgement quite far in, but it was already too late. We needed to see it through to the end, chapter by harrowing chapter, through the lying and back-stabbing, the brainwashing, power abuse and slaughter, all the way to a bleak end. Well, it was not too different from things we saw at school: the pigs, the sheep, the chickens, the horse. It made sense. At the very least, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That was the concern, my mother much later confided, worried that this seemingly innocuous book had ‘warped our little minds.’ I reassured her that if that was the case, at least warped in a productive way; I’m still writing strange animal fables four decades later. I mention this because it’s a reminder that children as an audience do not always benefit from adult presumptions. They can handle much more than most adults believe, and they do – publishers take note.

For this reason, I’ve never been keen to draw the line between one literature or another, one genre of painting or another, between adults and children. A book, a story, a painting is not for everybody, just that person, any person, who finds it interesting. That’s the only determination of good art that I’ve been able to figure out over the years: something that’s interesting. I’m so pleased that the readers of Tales from the Inner City have granted me the gift of highest praise, of finding it interesting, all the more so for being a little warped. It’s supremely nice to know, as any properly warped author and illustrator can attest, that I’m not the only one.

Thank you!