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Daily Banalities Shimmer in Mystery, Shrouded in Shrieking Secrecy: Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Ever since The Arrival and our ‘definitive’ review of the book, I vowed to find more Shaun Tan books in our libraries. And as luck (and the Singapore Community Library) would have it, I managed to get several for feature on our Mystery/Suspense Bimonthly theme.

Whodunit Theme for May/June

No, there is no crime that needs solving, no murder, no mayhem. It has something even better. The mysteries of everyday life unraveled through poetry, nonsequiturs, lyrical narrative, and exquisite illustrations. Whenever I teach ‘creativity’ to my graduate students in gifted ed or the Singapore army, I always entice them to “make the familiar strange” – and perhaps the seeds of artistry would be allowed to blossom. This phrase perfectly encapsulates Shaun Tan’s multi-award-winning book, Tales from Outer Suburbia. 

A Celebration of the Obscure, Rejoicing in the Absurd. My first encounter with Shaun Tan was through his wordless picture book The Arrival. It is only now that I begin to understand that Shaun is not only a gifted illustrator, he is a brilliant writer as well (sometimes people just have it all). I had goosebumps when I read Outer Suburbia I had to literally stop myself from reading at 1 in the morning. I usually do not go for vignettes or short tales collected in one novel – but this one had me literally reeling.

From the story “Broken Toys”

In this interview done by School Library Journal, Shaun mentioned that he was writing this book while he was also working on The Arrival because he felt an urge to write, to switch styles and experiment and play around with that variety. In the same interview, he noted that:

[Suburbia] is actually closer to my sketchbooks and closer to how I work when I don’t have an overriding project. I really love discontinuity, that dreamlike state of things like nonsequiturs that have some undercurrent coherent meaning that’s on the surface (source here)

While I enjoy prose immensely, my first love is poetry. That which is obscure, meaningless in its utter profundity, lyrical in its being discordant, garrulous, and odd.

From “Eric” – reminded me a little bit of “The Arrival”

Outer Suburbia captures that whimsical musing – the mundane cloaked in shimmering strangeness as seen in (1) The water buffalo who lives at the end of your street who manages to literally point you in the right direction – regardless of what your problems/issues may be (2) the minuscule foreign exchange student Eric discovering the usual often-tedious routine that people go through each day with quiet fascination, his strangeness explained away by mother as “must be a cultural thing” (3) rituals of marital life replete with symbolic images that go beyond the usual lovers’ tiffs and transcending the hackneyed couple’s tribulations with raging TV sets with fangs, motels with a No Vacancy sign, fearsome trees holding their car in its gnarled branches – in Grandpa’s Story, (4) a large marine animal breathing heavily in the front lawn as the couple in the house scream and shriek at each other while their child sneaks out and lies down in the belly of the strange animal comforted by the heavy soundlessness in Undertow (5) finding an inner courtyard in one’s home where unusual blossoms float through the air where it was winter in summer and sunny during the coldest part of the year in No Other Country.

Absolutely inspired. And this is just the dedication and table of contents spread.

Our own Outer Suburbia [and the Spaces-in-Between]. These are just a few of the stories that caught my eye in Outer Suburbia – there are so much more (15 stories in all) ranging from the movingly haunting to the outrightly disturbing; some have sociopolitical issues embedded in the narrative notwithstanding its surreal elements – all ingeniously crafted, skillfully woven, splashed with just the right amount of mystery, the remarkable oddity that’s calculated yet moving in free verse. Shaun Tan managed to intermingle all these complexities that are foreign yet familiar, strange yet comforting, mysterious yet barefaced in its biting candor.

Book Awards and Teacher Resources. As per usual, Shaun has received quite a number of awards for this one (source: Arthur A. Levine Books).

Spring 2009 Kid’s Indie Next List
Best Artist, World Fantasy Awards 2009
CBCA Book of the Year, 2009
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2009
New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books, 2009
BCCB Blue Ribbon Book 2009
Washington Post Best Kids’ Books of the Year
Booklist Editors’ Choices for 2009
A YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, 2010
An ALA Notable Book for Children, 2010
USBBY Oustanding International Book, 2010
LA Times Book Prize, Finalist

I have also managed to find a few helpful resources for this book. This one is a downloadable pdf link that details teachers’ insights and reviews of the book from Allen and Unwin.

Say hello, folks.

Other reviews include this one by The Sydney Morning Herald which provides a concise and sharp description of each of the tales found in the book. A wikispace has likewise been created for Outer Suburbia which details possible creative writing units for teachers and strategies on how to engage reluctant readers to connect with the book. I personally feel that this book is best for those in their early teens and young adults. While younger children may resonate with the fantastical images, the layers in the narratives can be teased out more easily by an older child.

Poesies in Scraps made my heart sing. I shall end by sharing with you my favorite in the entire collection of vignettes. It’s entitled Distant Rain and it just moved me deeply. I hope you enjoy it too:

Distant Rain
Have you ever wondered what happened to all the poems people write?
the poems they never let anyone else read?
Perhaps they are too private and personal.
Perhaps they are just not good enough
Perhaps the prospect of such a heartfelt expression being seen as 
or simply embarrassing
is enough to give any aspiring poet good reason to hide their work form public view
Naturally many poems are immediately destroyed
flushed away
Occasionally they are folded into little squares and wedged under the corner of an unstable piece of furniture
(so actually quite useful)
Others are hidden behind a loose brick or drain pipe 
Or sealed into the back of an old alarm clock 
Or put between the pages of an obscure book that is unlikely to ever be opened.
someone might find them one day,
but probably not
The truth is that unread poetry 
will almost always be just that
doomed to join a vast, invisible river of waste that flows out of suburbia.
Well Almost always.
On rare occasions,
some especially insistent pieces of writing will escape
into a backyard or a laneway
be blown along a roadside embankment
and finally come to rest in a shopping centre car park
as so many things do
it is here that something quite remarkable takes place.
two or more pieces of poetry drift towards each other
through a strange force of attraction unknown to science
and ever so slowly cling together to form a tiny, shapeless ball
left undisturbed, this ball gradually becomes larger and rounder
as other confessions, secrets, free verses,
stray musings, wishes and unsent love letters
attach themselves 
one by one.
Such a ball creeps through the streets
like a tumbleweed
for months, even years
If it only comes out at night it has a good chance of surviving traffic and children
and through a slow rolling motion
avoids snails (its number one predator).
At a certain size, it instinctively shelters from bad weather, unnoticed
but otherwise roams the streets,
searching for scraps of forgotten thought and feeling.
Given time & luck, the poetry ball becomes
large huge enormous 
a vast accumulation of papery bits that ultimately takes to the air, 
levitating by the sheer force of so much unspoken emotion.
It floats gently above suburban rooftops when everybody is asleep
inspiring lonely dogs to bark in the middle of the night.
a big ball of paper,
no matter how large and buoyant, is still a fragile thing.
sooner or later, 
it will be surprised by
a sudden gust of wind
beaten by
driving rain
and reduced
in a matter of minutes
a billion
soggy shreds.
One morning
everyone will wake up
to find a pulpy mess
covering front lawns
clogging up gutters and plastering car windscreens
Traffic will be delayed
Children delighted
adults baffled
unable to figure out
where it all came from
Stranger still
will be the discovery that every lump of wet paper contains various
faded words pressed into accidental verse
barely visible but undeniably present
To each reader they will whisper something different
something joyful
something sad
and perfect.
No one will be able to explain the
strange feeling of weightlessness
or the private smile that remains
Long after the street sweepers have come and gone.

PoC Challenge Update: 36 (25)

PictureBook Challenge Update: 77 of 120 [although could also be an illustrated YA novel or graphic novel]

Submitted to Book Talk Tuesday being hosted today by The Lemme Library.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. Allen & Unwin, NW Australia, 2008. Book borrowed from the community library.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

19 comments on “Daily Banalities Shimmer in Mystery, Shrouded in Shrieking Secrecy: Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

  1. Those are AMAZING! I’m following on twitter 😉


  2. Oh I love the poem. I used to write a lot of poems before and most of them are unread poems.


  3. I can think of a few primary kids I know who I think would relate to what seems like a patchwork of bizarre prose and poetry. Though much might go over their heads, it think especially the images would inspire their own fantastical, creative juices!

    Fascinating choices, Myra.


    • Hi Joanna! I believe that kids can do pretty amazing stuff if we do have faith in how they think, and how quickly they process information. I also know quite a number of high ability learners and just plain creative kids who may be in their primary years but whose thought processes exceed that of my undergraduate students – and yes, they are bound to enjoy Shaun Tan’s creation.

      I suppose the reason why I recommended it to those in their tweeners/early teens is because some of the lighter-shade-of-dark elements in the narratives may be handled more meaningfully by older kids – but I do agree that with guidance and interests, younger children might be inspired by the quirky illustrations and the nonsequitur lyrical quality of the text. =) Aha! I got it. Why don’t you give it a try with your kids out there and let me know what happens?? 😉


  4. If we have these in our school library, I will do just that 😉


  5. Hi Myra! I’m a little late on my comment for this post (on account of my being away to visit Singapore. It’s awesome there by the way! The National Museum of Singapore was my first overseas museum visit, strange that I remembered the balloons and museums book when I went there :P) This looks like another winner from Shaun Tan. A bit of Distant Rain reminds me of the PostSecret books by Frank Warren. People send in anonymous homemade postcards with any secret or thoughts they would want to share, some of them are then compiled into books. Are you familiar with this one? Great post! 🙂


    • Hi Tin! So wonderful to hear from you. I haven’t heard of Post Secret books by Frank Warren – but looks like something that would have fit right into our Message in a Bottle bimonthly theme last January/February.

      You were in Singapore! Next time that you come over, do consider dropping me a line and perhaps we can at least arrange for a coffee meet up – or should I say kopi-o meet up, Singaporean style, lah!

      And yup, I got another email from Shaun Tan – he generously shared with me his original Distant Rain full spreads – since I am planning on using it for my keynote here in Penang this Sunday. Wish me luck! =)


  6. Oh, I would definitely love to come back to Singapore and if that happens, I’ll give you a holler. I failed to squeeze in a library visit the last time. Tsk. Perhaps we could thrown in some kaya toast along with the kopi (and some hainanese chicken rice or char kway teow…yum…sorry, I’m food dreaming :P)

    I think Shaun Tan has a book devoted to and even entitled Eric. He seems like a charming little guy.
    I love the phrase that you coined. “Make the familiar strange”. It captures Shaun Tan’s book to a tee.

    Good luck on your keynote in Penang! Excellent choice on including Distant Rain. Such a lovely poem should definitely be shared to the crowd. 🙂


  7. I have never heard of Shaun Tan, but we’ll have to give his book a try! Our tastes tend to run a bit more straight forward, but it is always good to try something new. I think my boys will enjoy the drawings. Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts.


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