As with The Arrival (Arthur A. Levine 2007), Shaun Tan continues to astound as he lifts the curtain on workplace marginalization. Taken on the surface, the book is an odd story of a little green bug who works in a gray suit at a gray workplace, speaks in a clipped manner, and is poorly treated. He eventually walks upstairs to the outer ledge of the building roof, his back splits open, and out emerges a red bug who flies away into distant skies. However, readers must dig deeper. For 17 years, Cicada was a dedicated, hard-working data entry clerk for a large corporation. For 17 years, he was underappreciated by superiors (overlooked for promotions and given no positive reinforcement for outstanding work performance); received no rights (he is "not human"); was subjected to prejudice (he must walk blocks away from the office building to use the restroom and is docked pay for it); experienced workplace bullying from co-workers (he is stepped on and called "stupid"); was shown a lack of consideration for his unconventional physical attributes (he must reach up well over his head to press elevator door buttons); and, finally, was paid low wages (too poor to pay for housing, he lives in the walls of the job site). After 17 years, he is forced into retirement. He ascends to the rooftop of his workplace where he sheds his nymph casing and flies away with other 17-year periodical cicadas (Magicicada) like himself. This book tells its story using minimal, clipped text which creates the impression that English is Cicada's second language. On each page, Cicada repeats a series of verbal tics. Tan's oil on canvas and paper illustrations are incredible—stark and spare. He uses a palette of various grays for Cicada's work world, with smatterings of green reserved for Cicada's head, food, and elevator buttons, with splashes of red appearing to express his eventual freedom. Packed with visual and verbal symbolism, this one begs to be read many times and discussed thoughtfully in order to unpack and elaborate on the allegorical message of Tan's story.
Cicada tells the story of a hardworking little cicada who is completely unappreciated for what he does. But in the end, just when you think he's given up, he makes a transformation into something ineffably beautiful. A metaphor for growing up? A bit of inspiration for the unappreciated striver in all of us? Yes, yes, and more.