Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Thanks to Scholastic Trade Publishing for providing an advanced copy for the purposes of review.
In simple, clear-cut phrasing, Shaun Tan’s Cicada is a stunning, bold, and impressive work of children’s fiction. Tan has always been known for pushing the envelope in the boundaries of children’s literature, introducing adult themes that most authors would be uncomfortable in including. His newest book is the very definition of this author’s memorable creativity and structuring. Telling the story of a cicada, a froghopper-like insect, that has worked in an office job for an outstanding seventeen years. However, ignored by his human peers due to his unique race, this cicada stakes forsaken and dangerously alone. On the surface, this premise is intriguing, but is still only a mere glimpse into what Cicada provides. Its lush and gorgeous images are tainted with seemingly endless buckets of gray, until its red-infested climax where both its story and illustrations merge in satisfying ways. The work is easily Tan’s best work, even with such a strong predecessor in Tales from the Inner City. Featuring a metaphor-reliant story that speaks for the ages, Tan’s Cicada is a breath of fresh air for the picture book genre with its boundary-defiant nature.
Kicking off with the illustrations, Tan smartly chose a very distinct and variant palette of colors for this distinct and variant story. Using large quantities of dull gray, mixed in with some bolded greens, Tan does a wonderful job of showcasing lighting and shading. From a distinct detail on his part as the cicada is seen square center with a soft gradient of light to a sweeping image of brightly painted red creatures, plastered symmetrically across the page. It’s a stunning collection of illustrations that I wish could have been more diversified, especially towards the end, but still is emotionally related to the story’s heart. In fact, Tan never differentiates narratively between his illustrations and story. They all feel like a cohesive piece, blending imagery and figurative language to create a truly stylistic ride.
As for the story, it continues to prevail on my mind just how daring Tan was. He doesn’t choose the bright, rainbow palette of colors. He doesn’t choose the joyful story of a new student finding acceptance at school. He chooses a story related to discrimination and racism, messages that are socially and culturally relevant and pushes the envelope in the content and symbolism that children’s writers include in their books. In addition, these messages are front and center and there isn’t another story younger readers can lean back on. Any readers of Tan’s Cicada will be prefaced with these messages, a risky decision that some could find controversial. Indeed, outside of its somewhat lackluster and repetitive conclusion, Cicada pulls out every risk possible in Tan’s mind.
But yet, during the middle portion of the story, I found the pacing to be off-key. It relies a little too much on the intelligence of the reader, and just chugs right through the events, with little regard for the younger readers who will be reading it regardless. And even without its loose and indifferent nature, the second act itself doesn’t properly set up what its final act entails. Instead, it serves a mediocre time that could have destroyed the integrity of the first act if it wasn’t for the third and final act.
Ultimately, Cicada is a genre-defining tour de force of Tan’s ingenious and bold tactics for children’s literature. It pushes the boundaries in almost every way, using metaphorical symbolism and a gray, dark palette as its primary features. And despite a rocky middle act, it pulls together again for the mostly satisfying conclusion. Already, Tan has created a work that could stand as one of the best books of the year when all is said and done. But that is up to 2019 and time to decide.
Score: 9.2 out of 10
CICADA is an HBB Reviews Editor's Choice!
Cicada tells the story of a hardworking little cicada who is completely unappreciated for what he does. But in the end, just when you think he's given up, he makes a transformation into something ineffably beautiful. A metaphor for growing up? A bit of inspiration for the unappreciated striver in all of us? Yes, yes, and more.
CICADA hits store shelves on January 29th, 2019.