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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Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Cover of Life As We Knew It

Captain’s Log:

Module 8

Port of Call: Pfeffer, S.B. (2006). Life as we knew it. New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc.

First Lines: May 7

Lisa is pregnant.

Dad called around 11 o’clock to let us know. Only Mom had already taken Jonny to his baseball practice and of course Matt isn’t home from college yet, so I was alone to get the big news.

Summary: Miranda is a teenage girl living in Pennsylvania. Her life revolves around her friends and social life – her friend Megan is becoming increasingly religiously fundamentalist while her other friend Samantha is falling into a promiscious lifestyle. Miranda also is an avid fan of Brandon Erlich, a local figure skater increasing in fame, and who inspires her to want to ice skate. In the midst of this busy, teenage life, Miranda pays little attention to the news about the asteroid about to hit the moon. Everybody expects the asteroid hit to be a minor occurrance, but instead it knocks the moon into a new orbit and sets off a chain of events that effect the entire world: tidal tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, volcanic ash that creates an early winter and power grid failures send Miranda’s family into survival mode. Living off of canned food and the firewood they were able to gather, Life As We Knew It is a gripping story that makes you think about what could happen if our world was effected by a cataclysmic disaster.

First Impressions: From the moment I read the description of this book I was interested, as this sort of survival/post-apocalyptic sci-fi is one of my favorite genres. I was unable to put this book down and read it in a single day while travelling across the country by airplane. This book made me want to go and stack up on canned goods.

Suggestions for use: This book could prompt great discussion about natural disasters and survival, or as a unit on the effects of the moon or natural events on climate change. Of course, this book was compelling enough that I think many readers will pick it up just for fun.

Reviews:

BookList:

“/*Starred Review*/ A meteor is going to hit the moon, and 16-year-old Miranda, like the rest of her family and neighbors in rural Pennsylvania, intends to watch it from the comfort of a lawn chair in her yard. But the event is not the benign impact predicted. The moon is knocked closer to Earth, setting off a chain of horrific occurrences: tsunamis, earthquakes, and, later, volcanic eruptions that disrupt life across the planet. Written in the form of Mirandas diary, this disquieting and involving story depicts one familys struggle to survive in a world where food, warmth, and well-being disappear in the blink of an eye. As life goes from bad to worse, Miranda struggles to find a way to survive both mentally and physically, discovering strength in her family members and herself. This novel will inevitably be compared to Meg Rosoffs Printz Award Book, How I Live Now (2004). Pfeffer doesn’t write with Rosoff’s startling eloquence, and her setup is not as smooth (Why don’t scientists predict the possibility of this outcome?). But Miranda and her family are much more familiar than Rosoff’s characters, and readers will respond to the authenticity and immediacy of their plight. Each page is filled with events both wearying and terrifying and infused with honest emotions. Pfeffer brings cataclysmic tragedy very close.”

Cooper, I. (2006). Life as we knew it. BookList, 103(1), 127.

School Library Journal:

“Gr 6-8 –Pfeffer tones down the terror, but otherwise crafts a frighteningly plausible account of the local effects of a near-future worldwide catastrophe. The prospect of an asteroid hitting the Moon is just a mildly interesting news item to Pennsylvania teenager Miranda, for whom a date for the prom and the personality changes in her born-again friend, Megan, are more immediate concerns. Her priorities undergo a radical change, however, when that collision shifts the Moon into a closer orbit, causing violent earthquakes, massive tsunamis, millions of deaths, and an upsurge in volcanism. Thanks to frantic preparations by her quick-thinking mother, Miranda’s family is in better shape than many as utilities and public services break down in stages, wild storms bring extremes of temperature, and outbreaks of disease turn the hospital into a dead zone. In Miranda’s day-by-day journal entries, however, Pfeffer keeps nearly all of the death and explicit violence offstage, focusing instead on the stresses of spending months huddled in increasingly confined quarters, watching supplies dwindle, and wondering whether there will be any future to make the effort worthwhile. The author provides a glimmer of hope at the end, but readers will still be left stunned and thoughtful.”

Peters, J. (2006). Life as we knew it. School Library Journal, 52(10), 166.