Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan – Review by Shawna Coppola

rules of summer

If I were to reimagine my own “rules of summer” the way Shaun Tan does in his magical picture book of the same name, they might read something like this:

1. Never turn your back on a cucumber tendril.

2. Never visit a porta potty at night.

3. Always remember to pack the mustard.


Of course, my rules are still not nearly as intriguing or paradigm-shifting as Tan’s are, being as they are unaccompanied by his gorgeous paintings–although even if they were, I am sure they would still lack the mystery of Tan’s despite their shroud of simplicity (e.g., Never step on a snail.) This is due, at least in part, to his interest in and regard for the imagination, the not-easily-explained; as he writes on his website,


Any real meaning [in my picture books] is left to the reader to find for themselves, rather than overtly stated or implied, with an encouragement towards a close visual reading against quite minimalist text….What makes art and literature so interesting is that it presents us with unusual things that encourage us to ask questions about what we already know. It’s about…offering us [as readers] an opportunity to rediscover some new insight through things we don’t quite recognize….


That philosophy is beautifully manifested in Rules of Summer, which follows two boys (brothers? best friends?) around their neighborhood–and in many cases, far beyond– as they navigate the joy, the excitement, and the peril of not following the rules that were created over one adventurous summer.


This is a book that deserves multiple reads for multiple purposes–not the least of which is to be entertained by Tan’s exquisite ability to thrust his audience into a surreal visual universe that invites its members to take a long, cool look at every detail, every brush stroke, every shadow. Such details help to tell the story of the two boys, whose close bond provides a protective barrier against the forces that are enacted when the rules of summer are broken. (For those of you at home whose nightmares still contain Hitchcockian references to birds, a hint: Never eat the last olive at a party.) There is much to be pondered and discussed about this book among and between readers of all ages; and while Tan is not one to provide easy answers– nor should he–he does provide a wealth of information both about his artistic process and his philosophy on both his website,, and on the publisher’s Rules of Summer site (


As a mentor text, the possibilities this book provides for writers and illustrators are endless. One can notice, ponder, and attempt Tan’s minimalist text, his use of light and darkness, his very purposeful application of color, and/or even the concept of the book itself. And as mentioned previously, hours and hours of discussion could be had about what you–and your students– will inevitably discover within its enchanting pages. But, a warning: as with any work of art, I implore you to heed the words of poet Billy Collins and avoid the impulse to “torture a confession” out of Rules of Summer or “[beat] it with a hose/to find out what it really means.” As a matter of fact, in an attempt to save this book from such erroneous overhandling, I hereby declare my a warning a rule.


I cannot be held responsible if you break it.


Shawna Coppola is a reformed rule-follower who spends the majority of her summers suspiciously eyeing the cucumber tendrils in her garden. She currently works as a K-6 literacy specialist in a NH school where the “rules” of traditional public school are broken on a regular basis. You can share your own stories of rule-breaking with her on her blog,, or via her Twitter handle, @shawnacoppola.