Shaun Tan creates another thoughtful, insightful, simple-yet-oh-so-complex picture book with “Cicada.” The plot, on one hand, is simple. As Tan writes on the inside cover of the book, “Cicada tell story. Story good. Story simple. Story even human can understand. Tok Tok Tok!”
It’s about a nameless city filled with grey skyscrapers. And cicada, who is given no other name, works as a data entry clerk in a grey cubicle. He has worked for seventeen years without any sick days. Without making a single mistake. Because cicada is not human, he’s not promoted or even allowed to use the bathroom. He is alone in a sea of cubicles, and he alone finishes his work after the humans leave for the day. He is bullied by those who see him as different, and they think cicada is stupid even though he’s never made a mistake. He is paid so little that he must sleep inside a wall at the office. After seventeen cheerless grey years, he retires without so much as a thank you. He’s been ignored, overlooked, mistreated, and downtrodden the whole time.
“No work. No home. No money.
Cicada go to top of tall building.
Time to say goodbye.
Tok Tok Tok!”
While the reader thinks that one thing is going to happen, something entirely different happens. Cicada’s body splits and out of the formerly green and now grey body emerges a beautiful glowing orange creature with translucent wings. And it flies off to the forest, laughing at humans.
The story IS very simple. But it’s a story that can be read — and contemplated and discussed — on many levels. It’s certainly about being bullied and about being marginalized. It’s about the pain of feeling different. It’s about working day after day, week after week, year after year, at a job that is thankless and grim. When cicada is not allowed to use the bathroom and must walk blocks downtown to find a bathroom, it’s a page from the movie “Hidden Figures,” wherein a female black computer working for NASA in 1961 must run across campus – a half mile – to use the “colored” bathroom because she’s not allowed to use the bathroom in the building where she works.
With the perhaps-religious ending of the story, Tan implies the wonder of discovering that one has shed his earthly bonds, the shell which has held him, and is approaching the heaven in the skies — cicada has died and been reborn. He is leaving behind the years of drudgery of his years on earth. Cicada splits in two — a metaphorical death and rebirth – and flies to heaven as his true essence emerges. His body has been a shell. His soul is free.
There will be many interpretations regarding the meaning of this story. Is it about the beautiful surprises in our lives that can make us whole? It’s certainly about slights and injustices that can be — will be? — corrected by nature or karma or evolution. And in the end, after seventeen long years, the passage of time being emphasized by cicada’s “Tok Tok Tok!,” we vicariously feel the joy of being able to laugh at people in positions of power who do not even know that they themselves are prisoners in their own worlds.
Cicada now free. (Jack and Pamela Kramer)
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Scholastic, the publisher, for review purposes.