I Fell in Love with a Book by Shaun Tan

I fell in love with a book again. I know. It happens a lot. But this time I mean it. It always occurs when you are not looking for it. In this case, I went to the famed Fantastic Comics store in downtown Berkeley thinking I would be purchasing some manga for a gift, which I did. But a curious book jumped out at me, Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. I didn't buy it that day, but it haunted me and I went back for it. I later bought two more.

If you appreciate wonderful illustrations, combinations of pictures and words that tell stories, older children's books (age 12+) with a quirky and magical edge, then I suspect you will love this book as well. I was thankful I found it in a store and got to handle it myself since the online customer reviews, while positive, are somewhat misleading. I'd like to briefly address a few issues raised by the comments. 

One person found it "puzzling and challenging" and while her 12-year-old boy liked it, her 9-year-old daughter found it "too weird." I think it is actually a good thing to involve the reader. It is great that we have books to entertain us, that we can passively enjoy when we are tired, and that we also have books that can engage us and make us think (and all sorts of variations and combinations of both).

Another reader said that "the author doesn't really end the stories," which is only true if you have a fixed idea of what you think a story should be. The short story format leaves room for the reader's imagination and inferences: because of format constrictions, not everything can be explained in detail. I found all the endings quite satisfying, and at the same time I feel I could read them over and over again. 

A third reviewer, who actually loves the book, put the word "story" in quotation marks and says she has never seen anything like it. If you are familiar with book art, and even with some kinds of childrens' books, then you may have seen similar approaches. The book I've written about before (my first love!) Arm in Arm: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia by Remy Charlip written and drawn in 1969 is one example. It seems that the general public, even with the graphic novel so prevalent these days,  is still unsure about accepting work for adults or older children that has beautiful pictures. I wish I could say I had a solution.

Lovely page variations throughout are linked by Shaun Tan's iconic style. He explains that he wanted to "treat each story…as a separate little universe…." The endpapers are filled with doodles. The table of contents is made up of imaginary stamps to each of these universes with the postage being the page number. "Water Buffalo" has one page of text facing one illustration, "Eric" has a sequence of illustrations interspersed with the text. "Distant Rain" is written in a collaged style. "The Amnesia Machine" looks like a closeup from a newspaper article. He writes that:
 …all of the stories in ‘Suburbia’ are the products of ‘homeless’ sketchbook doodles and half-articulated ideas – those that I have found especially intriguing, or accidentally poetic in some way. My  favourites are usually the ones I can’t fully explain.
Really magical work can come from the subconscious, the consciousness submerged. It doesn't have to come from our intellect, it can come through our bodies in other ways. Tan tells about his process on his website, linked here, which doesn't explain the stories, but is a wonderful resource that sheds light on each story's beginnings. Most of them hinge on a merging of the landscape and his experiences growing up in Perth, Australia, where he still lives.

If you like this book, you might also like the work of Henrik Drescher, whose work Tan's reminded me of. While Charlip's is lighter, Drescher's is a bit darker, I think.

Tan is apparently most known for his awardwinning book The Arrival, which has no words at all, but documents the feeling of an immigrant coming to a strange city. Interesting review is here. I guess I'll be looking at that one next…

But wait! He won an Academy Award in 2011 for this short film The Lost Thing. The film is a different experience than his books, but it gives you a good idea of his aesthetic and storytelling sensibility. More info about the film here.


Kelly Kilmer said…
I love Shaun's books. I am constantly recommending his work to folks. His most recent work is The Bird King and Other Sketches which as an artist will probably intrigue and excite you. His works are strong and he creates such unique worlds and visions. He's one of my favorites.
Oh that is cool! The book. Great find I would think.
Sam Lane said…
Shaun Tan is one of my favourite illustrators and all time heroes. I bet you'll love The Arrival and I wouldn't mind betting you'd also enjoy his book Sketches from a Nameless Land, a sort of 'making of' The Arrival.
He's so clever. I'm 32 but I often tell people that, when I grow up, I want to draw just like Shaun Tan! How cool would it be to meet him and sit with him for an hour while he worked?
Velma Bolyard said…
i actually read this book with my hooligans. some like it, some not. it helps that they are short pieces that we can explore and compare etc. the only problem is a language/culture one that rural, northern u.s. kids struggle with a bit.
Velma Bolyard said…
oh, and the kids are equally mixed about the graphic work., generally liking it i like telling them it's not a "normal" narrative.
I love Shaun Tan's books and have checked out everyone I can find at our local library. I am a book maker so find them very creative and inspirational.