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Big Picture

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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Arrival

illustrated by Shaun Tan

With sorrow and hope, a man packs up a few treasured belongings and leaves his beloved wife and daughter, crossing the ocean to find a new life in a strange and overwhelming country of possibility, seeking to earn enough money there to send for his family to join him. It’s an oft-told story, so well worn that both adults and youngsters can grow a little numb to its poignancy. In this wordless Australian import, Shaun Tan not only makes the old immigration story new again, he also ingeniously puts the reader in the immigrant’s position to give the experience an immediacy one would have thought impossible to obtain from a fictional exploration.

A plot summary of The Arrival would follow the familiar lines. Our protagonist leaves behind a troubled city and embarks on a long ocean voyage. At the other end, he undergoes baffling entrance procedures and finds himself in bewildering alien territory. He manages to obtain himself a lonely set of rooms, brightened slightly by a friendly pet; his attempts to get work are less successful, initially (hired to put up posters, he glues them upside down, since he can’t read them), but finally he settles into quality-control work on an assembly line. As he strives to learn the ways of his new home, he’s cheered by friendly encounters with residents who tell him their own stories of sad departures and timid early days in this city; after his earnings bring his wife and daughter to join him and they too become part of this startling country, his daughter carries on the tradition of assisting the newcomers when she becomes the helper of another puzzled new arrival.

Tan turns this classic story into an imaginative as well as a visual tour de force by making the elements of the immigrant’s new country as strange, fantastical, and incomprehensible to the reader as to the new arrival. The new world is actually full of words, but they’re printed in an invented foreign lettering that neither the immigrant nor the reader can understand. Our protagonist’s companionable pet resembles a pale cat-sized whale with feet and ears; the city is covered with mysterious symbols and strangely shaped architecture over which fishy-looking birds soar; he’s stumped by a marketplace filled with tentacled, spiny vegetables (it’s a particularly skillful touch that the beauteous marvels tend to have sharp and pointy elements that make them elicit wariness as well as wonder). While the immigrant wears vaguely European clothing, city denizens generally sport garb of various fictional styles, so the occasional individual in familiar clothing offers a shock of desperate recognition felt keenly by the reader as well as the protagonist. The book is breathtaking not only in its imaginative interpretation of specifics (the Statue of Liberty equivalent is a pair of huge figures, one marked by his suitcase as a traveler, grasping hands in fellowship) but also in its creative depiction of the general experience (a spread containing a grid of sixty different views of the clouds in the sky conveys the tedium and sameness of the days on board ship during the ocean crossing). Stylistically, the illustrations are orderly squares in realistic, softly drawn tones of gray or sepia, color choices that ground the fantasy and emphasize the historical nature of the tale, as do the touches of faux-aging in the scrapbook- like framing and photograph-styled sections; a scribbled child’s drawing on the final page enhances the unspoken notion that this is a well-thumbed family history.

It’s a peculiar literary paradox that telling it exactly how it is is not always the best way to convey how it was. Tan’s fictional newfound land is overwhelmingly glamorous, alien, and plausible, conveying culture shock in a way that straightforward historical chronicles simply can’t manage. This could electrify a curriculum, provoke conversation if shared within a family, or simply bring a reader a startling new way of seeing a familiar story. A note explains Tan’s influences, which range from Ellis Island artifacts to Australian immigrant history.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Big Picture Image

Cover image by Shaun Tan from The Arrival ©2007. Used by permission of Levine/Scholastic Inc.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 2008.