Tales From Outer Suburbia
By Shaun Tan
Published in here in late 2007, it was the fittingly-titled book The Arrival that truly established Shaun Tan in the States. Over the years, the Australian artist’s work has navigated the nebulous space between graphic novel and picture books. That book, a fantastical take on the traditional immigrant story, landing firmly in the latter camp, eschewing the written word altogether, save for the occasional reliance on an entirely made up alphabet—another striking element in Tan’s attempt to import the reader into his newly conjured strange land.
In that sense, Tales From Outer Suburbia falls staunchly on the other side of the fence. While Tan’s always-stunning illustrations still play a vital role in the book, they have been largely decentralized. In the above, perhaps false, dichotomy, Tales unquestionably exists in the picture book camp. In some sense, however, even that broad descriptor seems somehow false. Rather, for the most this is most accurately a book of short stories supplemented by graphical representations.
A collection of 15 fictional memoirs, Tales From Outer Suburbia is, arguably, too wordy to be a picture book. Together the stories frame the young life of an unnamed narrator, coming of age in a fantastical town that might easily exist on the outskirts of the city mapped out in The Arrival. The texts and images are largely situated on opposing pages, though Tan does, from time to time, construct clever methods by which to incorporate the two into a single piece of art, such as the extended poem ‘Distant Rain’, which takes the form of a scrapbook and ‘The Amnesia Machine,’ which sits the typed story in the middle of a newspaper.
On a whole, however, the art seems to be present in support of stories, which infuse largely familiar suburban existence with the presence of fantastic events and creatures, like an omniscient water buffalo and a misplaced dugong. While the mere existence of Tan’s prose may prove initially off-putting for those only familiar with the book’s predecessor, his words go far to capture a similar sense of wonder.
But where The Arrival was invested in a world that, even devoid of fantasy, would likely prove foreign to most younger readers, Tales From Outer Suburbia has one foot firmly planted in the familiar—a world of mowed lawns and highway overpasses. For all of its strangeness, the book is somehow familiar, and as such, may connect even more strongly with its readership, spurring on that wonderful ingredient in the best of kids literature: a catalyst for helping young readers discover the world around them.