The Viewer by Shaun Tan

   If you are a child of the late 70s and early 80s, you will no doubt be familiar with the once popular (but often disappointing) viewer toy. Mine was made of red plastic and I would regularly be bought white disks to insert, showing scenes through the lens from the latest blockbuster film or popular tv programme….not exactly Netflix or Amazon Prime but it was all we had at the time. Well, one such device is featured in Shaun Tan’s The Viewer…although this tale is altogether darker and definitely for older children.
 The book tells the tale of a young boy who likes routing through rubbish, who finds the Viewer of the title. When he looks through the lenses, he sees images of suffering and descruction (all the scenes depicted can easily be matched to significant periods in History, such as the fall of great empires and the relocation of indigenous people. The tale ends on a mysterious and sinister note after the main character feels the viewer is watching him, until he finally gets pulled into the dark places between the images on the viewer disks….and his family forget he ever existed!

Quick Activities

The images in the book could all be used as a starting point for a piece of short story writing, as they are dripping with opportunities for descriptive writing.

Equally, the images displayed on each disk viewed by the main character could be used together, with the children being asked to sequence the images and then write or orally retell the story they believe is depicted. This would be a great opportunity for the children to explore different interpretations of the same events, as the images provided plenty of opportunity for discussion.

Extended Activities

The final set of images seen in the viewer are of potential modern day apocalyptic situations such as Nuclear explosions, famine and pollution. To take a more positive view, the children could be asked to create a viewer disk set of images or associated story which tells how one of these events was averted or avoided.

On a similar theme, the children could all be challenged to create images or stories for a positive viewer – perhaps a companion device to the one in the story which is found by another character on the same rubbish dump. They could be asked to identify significant successes and triumphs from mankind’s history to show the achievements and progress of the past.

The author’s note states that they were inspired to write the story after one of their childhood disks from their own viewer had a missing image pane….stimulating the idea that someone had been there before them and fallen through the broken image into history. The could provide a rich and challenging opportunity for writing as the children could be asked to write the story of the main character who is drawn into the viewer, in relation to where and when in history he appears. Does he return home? Does he influence historic events? Does he meet any historic characters. This would make the book easy to link to virtually any history project!

Cross curricular opportunities

There are obvious links to be made with art, in that the children could produce their own sets of images to reflect a world, local or personal event. However, this idea could be taken further with the use of animation software; the children could animate their own sequence of images or try to replicate those in the book, filling the gaps with their own storytelling.

The Viewer itself is found in an ornate box. There would be great scope for the children to create their own boxes, decorated and adorned with significant symbols and images, as part of a structures project in DT.

Additionally, the very emotive imagery in the book could provide stimulus for composition in music. What soundtrack would the children compose for the different sequences of images on each disk?

‘The Land of Neverbelieve’ by Norman Messenger

 This amazing book by Norman Messenger is one of the rare gems; a book with so much depth that you can make many return visits and discover something new every time! The book takes the form of a 19th Century style biological journal, filled with amazing observed anatomical drawings of strange beast and maps of wonderous landscapes.

Quick Activities

Encourage the children to take inspiration from the amazing hybrid animals in the text to invent their own fantastical creature with consideration of how interesting and inventive adaptations can help it cope with life in the wild.

Using the map, displayed above, the children could be challenged to create their own fantastical land, within which they demarcate specific habitats, geographical features and natural wonders. They can create their own key to accompany a written travel guide for tourists.

Extended Activities

This book has so much depth, there is great potential for the text to be used as a central anchor for cross-curricular learning. I will detail below how different aspects of the text could be linked to curriculum subjects:

English – narrative writing focused on the adventures of a traveller in the world of the book or a child’s own invented land.

Non Chronological reports based on the lifestyle and habits of one of the amazing creatures or range of species.

Narrative/nonsense poetry based on an encounter with a terrifying creature, linked to The Jabberwocky.

Science – ┬ástudy the habitats of the species depicted in the text and make comparisons with real animals.

Plant anatomy, food production and seed dispersal, studying real plants and then creating fantasy species.

Art – Observational drawing of plants and animals, emulating the 19th century biological journal style.

Experiment with the use of watercolour, in the style of the illustrations, to enhance observational drawings

3D sculptures of the animals and plants with the text i.e. Clay

Geography – create a 3D relief map of the island, encouraging the children to inclide features such as valleys/ volcanoes

Consider the impact of the physical nature of the island on humans by designing a new settlement.

History – investigate the ‘explorer’ heritage of the past, makin links with the work of Charles Darwin.

Personal, Social and Health Education – invent a new indigenous tribe for the island, considering how they would develop laws, ensure equality, provide for the needs of the people and develop a moral or religious belief system.

These are just a few ideas to get you started! Personally, I would have my whole classroom themed around the text, with regular letters or deliveries being made to the classroom from a fictitious field investigator on the island, with the deliveries then acting as a stimulus for learning activities. Imagine the excitement of a packing crate arriving in the classroom early one day filled with exotic plants for the children to dissect and investigate or a broken packing crate with an escaped creature in the classroom…can they use what they know of the creatures features and habits to create an appealing home to trap it again?

Please let me know what amazing ideas you come up with!!