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