Tales from Outer Suburbia
Written and illustrated by Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2008, 96 pp.
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.
University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM