Wednesday 11 June 2014

Memorial by Gary Crew, illustrated by Shaun Tan

Memorial by Gary Crew, illustrated by Shaun Tan (Thomas C Lothian Pty Ltd., 1999)

ISBN 0 85091 983 5

32 pages with colour illustrations and collage

Subjects: World War One, Ypres, Vietnam, war memorials, unknown soldier, trees, picture books (Year 5-8)

This is a surprising book. Things are hinted at or left unsaid in the text, and the illustrations often seem to go off at a tangent. I don’t think I appreciated it properly until I read Shaun Tan’s comments about how he chose to illustrate it. When you think about it, the title gives it away: Memorial, but not War memorial, even though the tree is a war memorial – but the book is also about the wider subject of memories, how and why and what we remember.

War memorials are a fascinating topic and they make you ponder all sorts of things – how and when they were built, who has gathered there over the years – as well as the stories behind the names of the men and women who went off to war. “Lest we forget” is  a common engraving – “But generations later, what do those who pause in the shadows of the tree’s immense branches remember?”  

Something I discovered when researching for Anzac Day: the New Zealand story was the fact that whereas in New Zealand, World War One war memorials usually list the names of those who died, in Australia they often list the names of all from that community who went to serve. Some people think that the difference is due to the fact that there was no conscription in Australia at that time, so the communities wanted to recognise each person who voluntarily went to serve.

There is a review on the Gathering books blog (if you scroll down), with lovely reproductions of some of the pictures

You can also find Teachers notes here

What do we know about the people in the family? How many generations are there? Who is telling the story?
Which wars did they fight in?
Where do you think the book is set?
Why does the Council want to cut the tree down? Does the tree get cut down? If so when does that happen?
What do people in the book say about memories?
What do you understand or get from the pages that have no words, only pictures?
What does the last page mean?

Author’s website
Gary Crew has a page on the Literature Centre website. 

Info about the illustrator
Shaun Tan has a website that is as amazing as you would expect. (Click on Picture books to get to Memorial.

On his website, Shaun Tan says that "Memorial is a story about a tree planted beside a war memorial monument, in a small country town by returned servicemen. Years on, the tree has grown to be huge and unruly, dislodging the statue next to it and creating a traffic hazard in what is now a much larger, busier town. A decision is made by a local council to cut the tree down."

‘Midsummer’ acrylic, gouache and pencil, paper collage.
Further down this page, Shaun Tan has written some thoughtful comments on illustrating the book. Too long to summarise, but I especially liked these remarks: 

"What made the subject of the book engaging for both of us was that it ended up being not about war, memorials or remembrance as ‘grand’ subjects, but about the small, quiet memories that make up ordinary day-to-day lives - really about the nature of memory itself."

"Perhaps the point of this picture book is to open a passage for its readers to think about the way symbols really work in relation to collective memory, as a container that needs to be continually topped up to have any currency."

"I was particularly interested in the idea of silence to add further depth to the book, that there are great reserves of feeling which cannot be expressed in words, and that the stories only ‘skim’ over the top of these lakes." 

Things I didn’t know
The tree that was planted was “a piddly Moreton Bay fig tree.” 

I found out from Gardening Australia  that the Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) is native to parts of Australia and Lord Howe Island. According to this article, they also grow in New Zealand. In fact the New Zealand Tree Register has a description of the tree that has been historically considered the largest Moreton Bay fig growing in New Zealand, at Monte Cecilia Park in Hillsborough, Auckland. (Must be worth a look, next time you go to see the Pah Homestead.) 

New Zealand Geographic also has a short article talking about how the Moreton Bay fig ("these banyan-like botanical goliaths" - wonderful description!) arrived in this country. 

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