Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Biblio Bits The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006 (ISBN 9780439895293)

Reading Level/Interest Age Ages 9+

Genre Science fiction, Graphic Novel

Plot Summary
This is the story of a refugee, told in pictures only. Our protagonist leaves his home, his daughter and wife, to seek a safer alternative in a new country. The illustrations indicate that there is something menacing the city he leaves behind: something big, dark, and with a spiny, tendril-like tail has taken over. We follow our protagonist on his journey across a large body of water, aboard a steam ship, and then into the grand harbor of the new world. Once there, he must be processed and made official; there are lots of lines and waiting, which is reminiscent of pictures from Ellis Island. The new world is as unfamiliar to readers as it is to the protagonist, with strange symbols that must be writing, bizarre and fantastic architecture, unusual animals, implements, and foods. Even shopping for food is different, almost like an old-fashioned automat. Our protagonist finds a place to live and works several jobs in order to save money to bring his family over. Throughout the story we meet other refugees and learn of their stories also, as our protagonist makes friends. This is a singular work that is both evocative and beautifully rendered.

Critical Evaluation
I have read and re-read this book several times and each time I find myself just as astonished and moved by the narrative as the first time I read it. Tan's book is completely unique in many ways. The book design is made to look old or worn, with interior pages that have stains or cracks, and a cover that looks like a weathered, leather album. The illustrations are rendered impeccably in a variety of black, gray, and sepia tones. Some page layouts are comprised of lots of little boxes (like the cloud spread), while others are full-page spreads. There is a soft luminosity in Tan's drawings that makes me think of Old Master etchings. And yet this is only the technical aspect of the work. The sequencing and pacing feels very cinematic: our attention is sometimes focused in on a detail through several frames, or alternatively, we start out close in and then zoom out through several frames, like the movement of a film camera. Tan also manages to convey deep emotions and stir a reader's empathy so that we are no longer reading about a refugee in a strange, new land, we are the refugee.

Reader's Annotation
I really can't tell you about this book, you just have to experience it for yourself. It's the story of a stranger in a strange land, who has come seeking safety. It sounds like a million other books, but I promise this one is different.

Author Information
Shaun Tan was born in 1974 in Australia. His father is a Chinese Malaysian and his mother is Australian, of English and Irish descent. Tan studied fine arts, English literature, and history at the University of Western Australia and graduated in 1995 with a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts. Tan has received many awards for his works and, in 2010, will be the Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, Australia, where he currently lives. (Information in this author biography is from Gale's World Literature Today, 2008, and Wikipedia.)

Challenge issues
There are some scary parts of this story and strong emotions that are expressed.

Booktalking Ideas
I think the best way to begin a booktalk on this title would be to talk in some kind of gibberish for the first minute or so, perhaps holding the book and "asking" listeners whether they are familiar with the story (using facial expressions and gestures). Making the switch into English, it would be easy to hook readers in by showing them a few illustrations and asking some pointed questions. Have you ever had to leave your home? Moved to a new country without your family? What if you got there and no one understood you? How would you find food and shelter? It would be an interesting book to include in a themed booktalk on immigrants, mixing fiction and nonfiction, such as Maggie's Door (Giff, 2003), A Step From Heaven (Na, 2000), Letters from Rivka (Hesse, 1992), and others.

Curriculum Ties
This would be a fabulous book to tie into a unit about immigration, in fact I might recommend beginning the unit with this book, perhaps in small groups. For students who have not been an immigrant or refugee, this exercise would offer them a chance to be one. Have students become the protagonist: leaving behind his family in unsafe conditions, his quest for food and shelter, his utter bewilderment in his new surroundings. Perhaps they could also draw an identification page, like the protagonists, with a self-portrait and Tan-inspired symbols/language to represent his status and information (as in, no words in any recognizable alphabet!).

Why this book?
Because it's unlike anything I had ever seen before and I loved the old look of the cover and intriguing cover illustration.

ALA Notable Children's Books, Older Readers, 2007; Parents' Choice Awards, Fiction, 2007; Booklist Editors' Choice, Books for Older Readers, 2007; Oprah's Kids' Reading Lists, New Releases, Age 12 and up; New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books, 2007; New York Times Notable Books, Children's Books, 2007; School Library Journal Best Books, 2007; USBBY Outstanding International Books, Grades 6-8, 2008; Australian Book Industry Awards, Book of the Year for Older Readers.

Rockport Public Library owns?

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