Perhaps more than any other Australian writer for young people, both in his fiction and his picture book texts, at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, Gary Crew made the metalanguage of postmodernist storytelling his own. Still photography and moving pictures had long demanded that the old 18th century writers' aim of realism be repositioned. If a camera could record the familiar faster and more accurately than any writer could, then what was the role of the writer? The writer could make the as-yet-unimagined real in fantasy, or acknowledge the challenges fiction now presented, and explore the process of writing itself.
Ultimately that is Crew's subject. How do you, in a children's picture book, tell the stories of war, death and homelessness that young readers are seeing - or avoiding - every day on the TV news or on internet feeds? Doesn't the horror of the images any young reader can now witness make any children's book irrelevant? Crew's commitment to the powerful process of creating art answers that question with a resounding 'No!'
Right from the title, ‘The Serpent's Tale’, the narrative voice is contested. So, as in similar titles from Chaucer to Atwood, is the narrator here 'the serpent'? There's a pun lurking behind this title: 'Speak of the Devil, and you'll see his tail'. It's almost a metafictional note-to-self from the author: he is about to conjure up some terrifying subject matter that, in the view of some adults anyway, risks being beyond his young readers' ability to bear.
Using the archaic term 'serpent', Crew draws on his strict religious upbringing with the serpent as symbolic of evil. Where is this tale set? Ottley's visual narrative locates it in the Middle East: but which war? Tragically the answer the reader can infer is 'any war; the latest war.' On the sixth spread, the boy is wrapped in the 'club colours' of the UK, the United States, Australia, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Timor Leste, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Afghanistan - all locations where Australian troops have been deployed. For Australian readers there's no avoiding the narrative in this image.
Crew immediately raises the narrative to the level of myth, as he refers to the unnamed protagonist as 'the boy'. The boy wants an amulet, a metal bangle in the form of a snake consuming itself. He knows that this charm holds a story, and he wants to write it. Crew's narrative strategy is to allow the questions to accumulate: how does the boy know that this amulet holds a story? Why does his mother hate it? Why does the vendor practically throw it at the boy and refuse to take any money? The strange object seems cursed.
During the night, the serpent comes to life and takes over. The story comes independently of the boy who wants to write it - it exists apart from any of its creators. It is a timeless story that keeps renewing itself - or consuming itself, like the metal snake. It is a story of extremes, beautiful and dreadful and it is the story of humanity. When the boy wakes, his mother tells him that the war has arrived in their street. Although his immediate response is that it is all over, his mother tells him that it's only over if he wants it to be, and the narrative ends with the boy acknowledging that there is still a story to live and to tell.
Because the ongoing process of creating art is a story we have heard Crew tell many times before, this narrative could be anticlimactic, but the visual narrative brought by his illustrators - in this case, Matt Ottley - saves it from being too familiar. Why their publisher thought that the glum blue cover would entice a reader of any age is an added layer of mystery. But inside the covers, Ottley takes his readers from a Middle Eastern bazaar, through medieval Europe, speculative fiction, apocalyptic visions and simulated news footage. In two spreads where the boy's mother tells him it's his choice whether his story will continue or not, Ottley highlights the texture of the artist's canvas, to convey his visual narrative of the creative process. And in the image of a football tackle on the 11th spread, he brings the topic of war right home to the Australian suburbs.
‘The Serpent's Tale’ is a confronting picture book for older readers, and will be quite disturbing to some, but the opportunity to discuss the subject of war and the spell it seems to cast over human beings, regardless of place and time, will offer - if not comfort - then a framework for further exploration.