Shaun Tan’s ‘The Red Tree’ A picture book focussing on depression in children


The Red Tree by Shaun Tan one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It is melancholic and sombre. It is a picture book of exquisite beauty. The blurb at the back sets the tone for the thought provoking read:

Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to.’

In my opinion this book deals with the topic of depression and sadness in children. It begins with a picture of a girl waking up in a bleak room. Each image from then on is describing the emotions one feels when they are overwhelmed and lost with sadness. Tan does this expertly through the use of symbols and colours. Some of his descriptions for emotions are striking, as seen below. Two words accompany this image: ‘Nobody understands’ I think this haunting illustration perfectly sums up how one can feel so isolated and closed off from the world in times of stress.


Scale and perspective are used to excellent effect in the book. The girl is always dwarfed by monstrous shapes and beings to underline her powerlessness in spite of her feelings. The image below shows the sudden weight that depression could bring on a person ‘Darkness overcomes you.’ is the line describing the image.


I have looked many times at this book and I always find something new, there are literally hundreds of shapes and hidden signs interlocked in the background and in other objects. The artwork in the story is a thing to behold. One of the most vibrant and vivid pictures I have ever looked at appears below to describe how wonderful things pass us by when we’re overcome with grief or sadness.


I admire this book on so many levels. The text and the images combine to produce a powerful message. The book is bleak but has a hopeful ending which I felt was important to include. I admire Tan’s ability to produce a book which deals with the feelings of melancholy which develop in children. Tan himself refutes this, saying he completes his books without thinking of an audience but I think this book is a work of real merit. He is one of the top illustrators in the genre and I often wonder is it an injustice to call his books picture books as they are very hard to define. This is a book most people should try and read once. I think people will identify with it’s strange but hopeful message. I know everyone who reads this book will empathize and understand what the protagonist is going through.

This book is a marvelous achievement as I believe it breaks out of the genre of children’s literature in a way, it tackles the taboo topic of depression and grief in children. This is my interpretation, I would like to hear your view. Do you think The Red Tree is one of the greats? Would you agree that Shaun Tan’s talents don’t get the recognition they deserve? Please comment, I’d love a different opinion!


8 thoughts on “Shaun Tan’s ‘The Red Tree’ A picture book focussing on depression in children

  1. I haven’t read this book of Shaun Tan’s yet. The books I have read I love for their exquisite attention to detail and beautiful art, and also the slightly strange, X-files bent. As for recognition, I think Shaun Tan is fairly well-known. Do you mean he hasn’t received enough awards as his talent warrants? Because he won an Academy Award, so he’s been recognized via Oscar.


    • Sorry I should have clarified that,when I meant recognition I feel that his books are neither picture books or graphic novels in a way, I feel adults especially write his work off as children’s literature. I think his work should be pride of place in most bookshops, which I think it isn’t. Thanks for the comment, this book is worth checking out!


  2. Pingback: Favorite Posts from July | Literary Vittles

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