Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Cover of Tales from Outer Suburbia

Captain’s Log:

Module 13

Port of Call:  Tan, S. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

First Lines: When I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed…

Summary: Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of short stories and illustrations bound together by a theme of urban mystery. The stories are sometimes wondrous and upbeat, but can also be hauntingly eerie and thought-provoking. The stories are illustrations in a variety of styles, from full-color pages, to pen-and-ink, to eclectic collages and newspaper headlines. Many stories are open-ended, leaving the reader to decide how to interpret the strange occurences taking place. The tone of this book is understated, almost matter-of-fact in its prose, and there is something very detached and artificial in this book that brings to mind the ‘suburbia’ mentioned in the title. You get the impression that the characters in the various stories are surrounded by strange and wonderful things, and yet are incapable of realizing it.

First Impressions: I found the pictures and stories to be lovely. They made me think, and caught my attention, and yet I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this book. Its subdued tone bordered on the creepy, striking too close to home as a commentary on modern society’s flaws (both good and bad). The art reminded me of Chris Van Allsberg’s mysterious black-and-white style.

Suggestions for use: I think this book could be used to encourage creative thinking and writing. A teacher or parent could read a story and then ask the students to come up with their own explanations, or make up a story about what happens next.

Reviews:

Booklist: “Gr. 7-12 /*Starred Review*/ After teaching the graphic format a thing or two about its own potential for elegance with The Arrival (2007), Tan follows up with this array of 15 extraordinary illustrated tales. But here is an achievement in diametric opposition to his silent masterpiece, as Tan combines spare words and weirdly dazzling images—in styles ranging from painting to doodles to collage—to create a unity that holds complexities of emotion seldom found in even the most mature works. The story of a water buffalo who sits in a vacant lot mysteriously pointing children “in the right direction” is whimsical but also ominous. The centerpiece, “Grandpa’s Story,” recalling a ceremonial marriage journey and the unnameable perils faced therein, captures a tone of aching melancholy and longing, but also, ultimately, a sense of deep, deep happiness. And the eerie “Stick Figures” is both a poignant and rather disturbing narrative that plays out in the washed-out daylight of suburban streets where curious, tortured creatures wait at the ends of pathways and behind bus stops. The thoughtful and engaged reader will take from these stories an experience as deep and profound as with anything he or she has ever read. ”

Karp, J. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. BookList, 105(7), 50.

Publishers Weekly: “/* Starred Review */ The term “suburbia” may conjure visions of vast and generic sameness, but in his hypnotic collection of 15 short stories and meditations, Tan does for the sprawling landscape what he did for the metropolis in The Arrival .Here, the emotional can be manifest physically (in “No Other Country,” a down-on-its-luck family finds literal refuge in a magic “inner courtyard” in their attic) and the familiar is twisted unsettlingly (a reindeer appears annually in “The Nameless Holiday” to take away objects “so loved that their loss will be felt like the snapping of a cord to the heart”). Tan’s mixed-media art draws readers into the strange settings, à la The Mysteries of Harris Burdick . In “Alert but Not Armed,” a double-page spread heightens the ludicrousness of a nation in which every house has a government missile in the yard; they tower over the neighborhood, painted in cheery pastels and used as birdhouses (“If there are families in faraway countries with their own backyard missiles, armed and pointed back at us, we would hope that they too have found a much better use for them,” the story ends). Ideas and imagery both beautiful and disturbing will linger. Ages 12–up.”
Staff. (2008). Tales from outer suburbia. Publishers Weekly, 255(44), 59.
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