Tales from Outer Suburbia (Arthur A. Levine Books)

tfos-header.jpgShaun Tan follows up his break-out hit The Arrival with this new collection of short stories.



96 pgs. full color; $19.99 hardcover
(W/A: Shaun Tan)

Shaun Tan’s break-out book, The Arrival, was an incredible, gorgeous and haunting silent tale of immigration. Its greatest success was how it captured the Bizarro World feeling of entering a new country. Buildings, streets, and people can feel familiar and alien at the same time, with realistic, tightly rendered characters placed in surreal, but quite tangible settings that are hard to place in time and space. Even the language seen on billboards and newspapers is entirely made up, ensuring the reader’s foreignness, no matter where they’re from.

The cover to Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. Click for a larger image.Tales from Outer Suburbia, his follow up, is a collection of 15 short stories, with similar themes expressed in equally imaginative ways. One of my favorites, "Eric," deals with a family taking in a foreign exchange student, who turns out to resemble a friendly thumb-sized demon or spirit. The family welcomes him, excited to show him their world, and intrigued to learn about his. They prepare a guest bedroom, but find that he prefers to sleep in the pantry. They want to show him all of the sites their town has to offer, but he seems to be more interested in the buttons and bottlecaps he finds. "It must be a cultural thing," says Mum. And just as they’re starting to understand their guest, he leaves.

The stories continue like that. Rather than offering complete, satisfactory stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends, they’re more glimpses into unique memories and moments in people’s lives. Often, Tan combines the mystery and invention of childhood with the wisdom and hindsight bewilderment of adulthood, like The Wonder Years on acid. The layers of storytelling make it a perfect read for middle-schoolers and anyone older, but younger kids might find it a bit confusing. One story, "Alert But Not Alarmed," tells how people around the neighborhood have gotten used to the intercontinental ballistic missiles that the government started placing in everyone’s backyards and have started decorating them and adapting them for practical use, like doghouses and pizza ovens.

Most of the book is short prose with spot illustrations, but Tan changes the format and media a little bit for each story. And with so many of the stories ending somewhat suddenly, you never know what you’ll get when you turn the page. In fact, this book has some of the most impacting two-page spreads in memory. Without spoiling, there are several times while reading where you find yourself really drawn into the words, envisioning the fantastic places he’s created, only to turn the page and be struck with an eye-openingly rich, full color painting that feels familiar and alien at the same time.

Highly recommended for fans of art books or children’s books. | Nick Main

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