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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Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Cover of Leviathan

Captain’s Log:

Module 8

Port of Call: Westerfeld, S. (2009). Leviathan. New York, NY: Simon Pulse.

First Lines: The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised. Behind them stood two ranks of diesel-powered walking machines stood ready to fire, cannon aimed over the heads of the cavalry. A zeppelin scouted no-man’s-land at the center of the battlefield, its metal skin sparkling.

Summary: Alek is the son of the Archduke of Austria and is suddenly whisked out of his bed for his own safety when his parents are assassinated. Europe is thrown into turmoil on the brink of the first world war, and Alek must escape and survive until he can find allies to reclaim his birthright. He and his advisors hide from German clankers, giant war machines, while those who want him dead try to hunt him down. In the meantime, in England, Deryn Sharp has inherited her deceased father’s love of airships and decides to sneak into the British Air Service disguised as a boy. During an early training exercise she is separated from her base and is picked up by the British Darwinist ship Leviathan a giant flying whale that houses complex eco-systems all working in harmony as a deadly war airship. Her skills as an airman keep her onboard as a midshipman, and she goes with the Leviathan as it is assigned to a top secret mission to the Ottoman Empire. On the way, they encounter German forces and crash into a glacier near where Alek and his advisors are hiding. Alek makes the choice to try and help the stranded airmen and the two meet and form a friendship despite their differences and the secrets each is trying to hide.

First Impressions: I loved this book from the minute I saw the cover. I thought the alternate history to WWI was cleverly constructed and I am eagerly looking forward to the next book, Behemoth.

Suggestions for use: This book is a great inroduction into sci-fi and steampunk, so I can see using this book to introduce teenagers to these genres. I think this book has greater significance if the reader has some knowledge of WWI. This might even be a great companion story for students studying this period of history.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“/* Starred Review */ Gr 7 Up— This is World War I as never seen before. The story begins the same: on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated, triggering a sequence of alliances that plunges the world into war. But that is where the similarity ends. This global conflict is between the Clankers, who put their faith in machines, and the Darwinists, whose technology is based on the development of new species. After the assassination of his parents, Prince Aleksandar’s people turn on him. Accompanied by a small group of loyal servants, the young Clanker flees Austria in a Cyklop Stormwalker, a war machine that walks on two legs. Meanwhile, as Deryn Sharp trains to be an airman with the British Air Service, she prays that no one will discover that she is a girl. She serves on the Leviathan, a massive biological airship that resembles an enormous flying whale and functions as a self-contained ecosystem. When it crashes in Switzerland, the two teens cross paths, and suddenly the line between enemy and ally is no longer clearly defined. The ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel, and that’s a good thing because readers will be begging for more. Enhanced by Thompson’s intricate black-and-white illustrations, Westerfeld’s brilliantly constructed imaginary world will capture readers from the first page. Full of nonstop action, this steampunk adventure is sure to become a classic.”

Campbell, H.M. (2009). Leviathan. School Library Journal, 55(9), 176.

Publishers Weekly:
“/* Starred Review */ Launching a planned four-book series, Westerfeld (the Uglies series) explores an alternate 1914 divided between Darwinists, who advocate advanced biotechnology, and Clankers, masters of retrofuturistic mechanical engineering. Austria-Hungary’s Prince Aleksandar is whisked away into the night by trusted advisers; he soon learns that his parents, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie, have been murdered and that he has been targeted by prowar Germans. Half a continent away, Deryn Sharp successfully passes as a young man to join the British Air Service; her bravery during a catastrophic first flight aboard a genetically enhanced jellyfish (“The creatures’ fishy guts could survive almost any fall, but their human passengers were rarely so lucky”) earns Deryn a post on the living airship Leviathan . The fortunes of war lead Aleksandar and Deryn to the Swiss Alps, where they must cooperate or face destruction at the hands of the Germans. The protagonists’ stories are equally gripping and keep the story moving, and Thompson’s detail-rich panels bring Westerfeld’s unusual creations to life. The author’s fully realized world has an inventive lexicon to match—readers will be eager for the sequels. Ages 12–up. (Oct.)”
Staff. (2009). Leviathan. Publisher’s Weekly, 256(34), 62.