Cicada by Shaun Tan

Inside the CBCA Shortlist

Shaun Tan has won major Australian and international awards, including the Astrid Lindgren Award and an Academy Award for The Lost Thing.

Australian authors and illustrators are breaking ground on the world stage in their portrayal of refugees and the displaced. (I have written about some of these books in Raising Readers by Megan Daley.) Both human and non-human characters feature in these works. Cicada highlights a non-human protagonist.

Cicada (Lothian, Hachette Australia) is a highly significant work. It deserves close reading and contemplation. Cicada is open-ended. It keeps us wondering. It is enigmatic, yet powerful.

The writing seems simple but is multilayered.

Cicada could be an unappreciated migrant worker without friends, or it could represent any displaced, overlooked person – adult or younger. Cicada speaks in broken English “Tok Tok Tok!”, implying it is a migrant or refugee.

Cicada (even though wearing a suit) is told “not human” so needs “no resources”. Cicada is not allowed in the office bathroom. It can’t afford to rent so lives in office wallspace.

In contrast, the humans are faceless – “Human co-worker no like cicada … Think cicada is stupid.”

At the end of the book Cicada has “No work. No home. No money.

Cicada go to top of tall building.

Time to say goodbye.”

The illustrations are sterile, bleak and near monochromatic, apart from Cicada’s green body. They show a human office environment which is concrete and minimalistic. The office is represented as a maze. Cicada ascends Escher-like stairs. Shaun Tan explained to me, “Those stairs are from an actual building, interestingly, which I found on an architect’s site in the US (although their design was far less bleak)”.

On the roof edge a change of colour palette shows metamorphosis.

This book shows a dire scenario for the displaced. Could it lead to darkness, despair, depression, death – or change, metamorphosis and hope? There is the possibility of an ongoing life cycle.

The book should be used with caution with students who have anxiety or mental health issues or who are not mature enough for the themes.

Shaun Tan’s website is

Using the book with students:

Writing Describe Cicada’s speech style. Why may there be no pronouns referring to Cicada’s gender? Using Cicada’s style, write about what Cicada does next.

Illustrations There is much to consider in the illustrations. Students brainstorm their observations and reactions to the illustrations. Direct them to a discussion of colour and how built environments are shown here. Contrast the endpapers, which transform from built to natural environments.

Cicada Models After observing the illustrations carefully, students make models of cicadas using fimo polymer clay or other modelling materials. (Fimo polymer clay is easy to handle, can be hardened in the oven and can be bought in different colours, i.e. green, at stationery or art suppliers). They could also make models of the maze and stairs and place Cicada on them.

Stairs The stairs are Escher-like. Students could view stairs in the EP shortlisted, Make Believe: M.C. Escher for Kids

Read other books by Shaun Tan, in particular The Singing Bones (to observe his models of Grimm fairy tale characters in preparation for modelling Cicada); Tales From the Inner City (all about animals living in urban centres and also published in 2018) and Franz Kafka’s novella about transformation into a monstrous insect, The Metamorphosis.

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