Office work can be dull, monotonous and thankless, especially for a cicada.
In Cicada, a picture book aimed at high school readers, author/illustrator Shaun Tan reinvents the eponymous insect of the title as a data entry clerk. For seventeen years, Cicada has worked late, never taken a sick day, and received very little in return. In fact, the creature’s treatment at the hands (and feet) of its co-workers is nothing short of abusive. In one illustration, a headless, suited human places a shiny black shoe on a supine Cicada, while another headless, suited co-worker looks on.
It’s enough to drive anyone—or anything—to the brink. And that is, seemingly, what happens in this story. A heart-stopping series of wordless double spreads show Cicada poised on the edge of a tall building looking into the void. A red gash runs down its head and back … then a strange red creature emerges from its outer shell. Anyone familiar with the life cycle of a cicada will recognize the transformation from nymph to winged adult; from underground existence to free flight. And celebrate Cicada’s glorious escape from the office.
Shaun Tan’s illustrations present a soulless, drab corporate environment in stark contrast to the rich colours of the forest in the end pages. Text is sparse—most spreads feature four short lines or no words at all. Language is stilted. Tan has commented that his father, who migrated to Australia from Malaysia, may have provided some of the inspiration for this story. He has also remarked on the “casual racism” towards minorities that always lurks in the background.
A simple refrain runs throughout the book: “Tok Tok Tok!” For me, it is the sound of Cicada tapping on a keyboard, and a reminder of its repetitive, tedious days at work. For other readers, it could well signify something else. Cicada is a special book that will encourage reflection and discussion on a range of topics, such as power imbalances, injustice, the office environment and the natural world.
Written and illustrated by Shaun Tan
Published by Lothian Children’s Books/Hachette Australia, 2018
Listen to Shaun Tan on the mystery of Cicada in this short video:
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Laura Taylor is the founder of world children’s literature blog Planet Picture Book. She is a small business copywriter, NAATI-certified translator of French into English and member of AUSIT. When she is not writing, she is reading, and chasing after her two young children. She tweets @plapibo and posts at www.planetpicturebook.com