WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3


Tales from Outer Suburbia
Written and illustrated by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2008, 96 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-545-05587

This highly visual, creative book is a compilation of 15 fictitious tales that occur throughout outer suburbia in Australia. Some stories, such as the opening story, “The Water Buffalo,” are short in length, whereas other stories, such as “Eric,” are longer, encompassing 10 or more pages. All 15 stories are accompanied by highly detailed and engaging illustrations that come together with the text splendidly, giving the reader the opportunity to connect aesthetically with both the visuals and the literary merits. The author and illustrator, Shaun Tan, is an accomplished artist and writer who states on his website (www.shauntan.net) that his artistic influences have ranged from picture books such as The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight written by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Andrew Lobel (1992) and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (1984) to television and film, especially fantasy and science-fiction works such as Star Wars and The Twilight Zone. Among artists whose work has influenced his work, he is able to “list hundreds of illustrators, writers, cartoonists, photographers, filmmakers, and artists,” thus showing the scope of his artistic background. The numerous awards for his art and books include the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist, which is given to that year’s best artist of science fiction or fantasy. In 2007, he won the World Fantasy Award, which is awarded to the best fantasy artist for that year. Also, in 2011,  Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann won the Animated Short Film Oscar for The Lost Thing, based on his book of the same title.

Each story in Tales from Outer Suburbia has different characters who face different trials, and each story seems to illustrate a certain theme. For instance, in “Stick Figures,” the reader finds that, in this part of Outer Suburbia there are stick figures who are literally composed of sticks that roam the suburban landscape. The narrator tells us that, “They have always been here, since before anyone remembers, since before the bush was cleared and all the houses were built” (p. 65). The reader finds out that the stick figures are beaten, mistreated, marginalized, and constantly asked why they are there and what they want from the suburbanites. The story ends with the narrator stating that, “if you stop and stare at them for a long time, you can imagine that they too might be searching for answers….It’s as if they take all of our questions and offer them straight back: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?” (p. 69). Through discussion, students could come to see that those who are marginalized in society also have their own questions of others’ roles in modern society. And if we remind ourselves and our students that the setting of this story is the Australian suburbia, connections to the marginalization of Aborigines can be made to the marginalization of the stick figures.

Although the stories in Tales from Outer Suburbia draw heavily on aspects of the fantasy genre, by reading these stories with a critical lens, readers can draw parallels to modern social issues. Other examples of how the stories in this book highlight sociopolitical issues include “The Amnesia Machine” which presents issues regarding political discourse and deception and ‘Eric,’ which can be used to discuss issues of immigration and migration if read from a critical stance. Another example is the story ‘Wake,’ which is only two pages, yet can foster significant discussions in regards to issues of animal rights.

Although the stories in this book can be labeled as fantasy, the author has done well to make sure that the setting of the stories—suburban Australia—feels authentic. One example of this authenticity is seen through the author’s word choice. In “Make Your Own Pet,” the author uses phrases such as “rubbish collection” and “gather whatever takes your fancy” (p. 82). It would have been easy for the author or publisher to change the wording in order to make it more familiar for a North American audience; however, the decision to not change the wording in the book keeps the feeling of cultural authenticity. Another example of how authenticity is depicted is through the visuals. On page 11 in “Eric,” there is a picture of an electrical plug that clearly looks Australian and not North American. On the last page of “Grandpa’s Story,” there is a full-page illustration of a road that winds through a suburban neighborhood, with the houses looking similar yet each has different characteristics, exemplifying that, although the Australian suburban life shares similarities, there is diversity in the suburbs as well. Even the trash can in “Stick Figures” has a distinct appearance to it, one which a North American reader will probably not be familiar with. All of these examples lead the reader to feel as though they are encased in a rich Australian setting.

This book can be juxtaposed with other books by Shaun Tan, including The Arrival (2007) and The Red Tree (2008). Another book that might be of interest for others to pair with Tales from Outer Suburbia is The Dreamer (2010) by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Peter Sis. Like Shaun Tan’s books, The Dreamer blends beautifully text and visual, but The Dreamer gives biographical information of the poet Pablo Neruda, thereby illustrating to students that blending text and visuals can be used in multiple genres.

Bart Hill
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

9 thoughts on “WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures Volume 3, Issue 3

  1. Pingback: Mirror
  2. Monique Stone says:

    After reading the commentary about Mirror- I was very curious about how my Moroccan student would respond. I mentioned that it was all rural- and didn’t that bother her? She said to me very quickly- Did you read this part? The writer explains that she only just happened to travel in the rural parts. This book is really good”

    I teach English as a Second Language in the South Western United States. I have several students from North Africa. Many are young and are quite homesick. I decided to see how they might respond to representations of their cultures in children’s books available in the United States. I did not have enough lead up time to do justice to an explanation of cultural authenticity, so I used questions such as, do you think this book is fair? do you think this book is good? Should I read this book to my son to teach him about your country?

    I can’t say that one student from Morocco can completley decide the authenticity of a text, but her approval for my son’s library means a lot to me.

  3. Yun-Hui Tsai says:

    I remember when I read Yenika-Agbaw’s “Images of West Africa in Children’s Books: Replacing Old Stereo-types with New Ones?” in the book “Stories matter: the complexity of cultural authenticity in children’s literature”, she argued that “a fair comparison would have been to compare urban life and children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in both regions”. however, at that time, my first, shallow reflection was that “there is no such thing as a ‘fair’ comparison”, since these two kinds of kids/lives do exist in this world, so would this kind of comparison. I was wrong. And I am glad I realized that. By reading the book Mirror and this review I now understand that authors of children’s literature should keep in mind that their works have the impact deeper than we imagine, therefore they must possess the social responsibility to provide authentic and non stereotype stories to their young readers, who have less knowledge and sensitivity to read critically. I was really impressed that there are so many similarities the Baker designed in the book, even the color of each family member’s clothes, that makes readers connect two countries almost effortlessly. However I also noticed that if Baker didn’t choose to portray them this way, this book could inevitably end up in just another “unfair” comparison. This is such a outstanding book with beautiful illustrations and noble themes. But just because it’s so success and wild recognized, we should also pay more attention on its influence, either positive or negative.

  4. Taylor Yagow says:

    I think this review is really exceptional! The respect she shows for both cultures is great! I especially enjoyed her interruptions of the differences and yet the main purpose of the book Mirror was to focus on similarities as what connect all of us. I found some books that I thought would go well alongside Mirror, “Why I Love Australia” by Bronwyn Bancroft, Bundle of Secrets: Savita Returns Home by Mubina Hussanti Kimani and Ikenna Goes to Nigeria by Ifeomas Onyefulu. These are just other suggestions. I personally liked these three because they go into the cultures that Mirror compares in a child friendly way.
    I found Mirror to be a beautiful book with extraordinary illustrations. It really made me think about the stereotypes that we all make and that our similarities are really what hold us together.

  5. Annette Fiedler says:

    I found this review of Mirror expressed wonderfully; I enjoyed the intensive review and information provided here. I enjoyed this book greatly and felt that the images of the cultures told a beautiful story of culture and identity. The story that each side of the book represented was told in a way that children of all ages could understand. I brought this book into my classroom and my students’ had many questions, but the exposure to the literature was great. I am usually not a huge fan of wordless picture books but this one is one that grabbed my attention and I would like to do into depth more so with it and my future lessons in my classroom. There is a lot to expose our children to in this text and doing so will invite them into many different culture related discussions.

  6. I loved the design of this book! It was a “clever” way to capture my attention. I studied it forward and backwards the first day I had it because I was so intrigued with the design. This is a powerful book with a deep message, I thought, that shows we are all just people living life. In certain aspects we connect in the way that we live and in other aspects we don’t, but that is what makes it all so very interesting. The details of the illustrations are quite detail oriented. It certainly is a book that can be studied repeatedly and you will discover something interesting within the illustrations.
    The review is done nicely. I enjoyed reading her thoroughness of the book and that she reflected on the positives and slightly negatives. Authenticity is an important aspect that we have discussed throughout this semester. The reviewer discusses that the cultural authenticity was done correctly and portrays each culture accurately except for the magic carpet. I agreed with her. Usually there are words or situations that cause you to think that something does not seem right. I didn’t have that with Mirror. This is a great picture book to own!

  7. Dana Gray says:

    I enjoyed reading this review. I think the book Mirror was very unique and beautiful. The pictures were so crisp and naturally stunning. Baker obviously took great care and consideration in the images she chose to represent and compare. As the reader it was very apparent to me that her goal was to show similarities while highlighting differences. I think that this book could be appreciated for is central message and beautifully crafted images, we shouldn’t get too carried away with judging the book on its relevance and representation within a social-political responsibilities of the author.

    I do think that Short raised a good point, describing how the boy drew pictures of the magic carpets, and how that connection to Arabic is overdone and could be construed as negative. I did not view that as a negative quality.

    Overall this is a beautiful thought-provoking book that I will soon be adding to my library.

  8. Lanika Rodrigues says:

    I definitely enjoyed the book. Honestly, I believe it is more complex than many picture books I grew up with as a child and critiqued when I was old enough to babysit. The differences were actually what stood out most to me–the greater the differences, the more similar the families. For example, at the end of the story, when the Australian family settles in to enjoy some time away from the constant overflow of technology by the fireplace, while on the other hand, the rural, Moroccan family chooses this time to enjoy technology together as a family…it’s still family time, with the members enjoying each others’ company; it’s just done differently for the families. It reminds me of trying to read a book in a mirror: while a human face reflects exactly in a mirror, a book will always read backward in a mirror. This story’s ending example is no different: while there are places in the book where there are similarities between the cultures, it is still a fascinating joy to explore the differences, just as much as holding the book to the mirror.

    Because of such symbolic complexity expressed in this book, I see the lack of political societal structure representation as negligible, particularly when considering its main target audience. It is, after all, a PICTURE book, written for children whose parents and primary adult environments very likely teach stereotypes about people of foreign origin. Children in this case often see the attacked culture from very simple perspectives simply because ignorant perspectives are exactly that: simple. The author, therefore, appears to be using the very stereotypes (for example, the notorious “magic carpet”) to bring respect, rather than ridicule, to the different cultures. After all, when we look into a mirror, we might not always like what we see–yet often what we dislike about ourselves just might be what others see in us as beautiful. The book, the author, doesn’t focus on political structures because that isn’t the heart of the book. The heart of the book is to bring us back to the very simple truth: that no matter what our differences, at the end of the day, we are beautiful when we work together, especially when we work together to bring out the good in others, no matter how far away that may be.

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