Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tales from Outer Suburbia

I adored this book. So much, in fact, that it's taken me forever to get around to writing a review of it because I am certain there is no chance that I'll be able to to it justice. Therefore I've included more images than usual, because as far as I'm concerned, all I'd have to see is one of these pictures, and I'd be off to find the book for myself.

It would be well worth the price of the book if it only included the illustrations. But with the stories, it is simply amazing. They are intensely atmospheric, unexpected, puzzling, whimsical, and moving. I love it when a book completely runs against any possible expectations and defies predictability - I am so happy to reach out and grab Shaun Tan's hand as he pulls me into a world that is very much yet nothing like my own...or is it?

"The Water Buffalo," the first story, is just a single page, a few paragraphs. It begins:
"When I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed."
And here is the accompanying illustration:

Can you resist reading further to hear the rest of the story? I couldn't.

The following tale, which I also loved, is simply called "Eric." It's about a foreign exchange student (the diminutive fellow pictured below - note the peanut to get an idea of his actual size) who visits the narrator's family. He is an odd little guy, but they chalk it up to his being foreign and having foreign ways. When Eric decides to sleep in the kitchen pantry, they are a bit puzzled, but they don't think too much about it. "It must be a cultural thing," said Mum. "As long as he's happy." They never really do feel that they understand Eric, but when the time comes for him to go back home, he leaves behind a delightful surprise for his host family.Another story that really tickled me is "Alert but Not Alarmed," in which the government, years earlier, decided to issue ballistic missiles to citizens, who could feel proud that they were doing their part, by being custodians of the missile, to protect their way of life "in an increasingly dangerous climate." The commitment, we learn, is "modest:"
"We only have to wash and wax our missile on the first Sunday of every month and occasionally pull a dipstick out the side to check the oil level. Every couple of years a tin of paint appears in a cardboard box on the doorstep, which means it's time to remove any rust and give the missile a fresh coat of gunmetal gray."
But soon the missiles are painted other colors, and take on an entirely different purpose in the lives of their custodians...

There are many wonderful stories in this collection, but I'll only mention one more: "Grandpa's Story," which might be my favorite if I could bring myself to choose from among them. The tale is narrated by a grandfather to his grandchildren, and he tells them the story of his wedding to their grandmother.
"Of course, weddings were more complicated in those days, not the short'n' sweet kind you see today."
And Grandpa is not joking. The day of the wedding is an adventure fraught with peril and full of puzzling clues and riddles. If he and the bride-t0-be cannot solve them, there will be no wedding. They start out full of confidence and optimism, sure that if they stick together, nothing can stop them. But their troubles are only beginning. Above is a depiction of one of their adventures, which are depicted as a sequence of several such images, each one more perilous than the last. How can the couple ever hope to make it safely back to their wedding ceremony? I couldn't help but wonder how such a tradition might affect the divorce rate - it would be an excellent way of weeding out the incompatible couples before the wedding!

My library shelves this book in the young adult section, but it certainly holds plenty of appeal for adults - and younger children as well. Not all the stories are necessarily a good fit for younger readers, I would say - best to read through them yourself and choose from among them. I plan to read this to my nine- and eleven-year-0lds, skipping a few here and there that I think they will better appreciate when they are older. The illustrations are a feast to the eyes, and the stories themselves are bound to remain with you for a long time after you've closed the book. I wholeheartedly recommend this collection to those who enjoy the fantastical and the odd, and who enjoy being left with a little something to ponder when the story comes to a close.

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009

Also reviewed at:
Books of Mee: "I love love love these stories! Or should I say the illustrations. I’m not sure which I like more: the artwork or the stories. They’re both amazing. I often feel that the stories illustrate the pictures than the usual other way around."

Library Queue: "This book definitely gets bonus points for creativity, gorgeous illustrations and word choice that gave me chills."

Stainless Steel Droppings: "Some of the stories featured here have a deep melancholy, others are poignant, still others are quite funny. Without a doubt, each and every story is worth reading again and again and each and every illustration fires the imagination.”

Peeking Between the Pages: "It's almost like walking through a dream filled night when the pictures are changing on you quickly. It's very outside the box and would appeal to teens with great imaginations as most of the stories leave you with pieces to figure out on your own."


  1. I did love this one. Glad you liked it too. Great review!

  2. Thanks, Tricia. It's wonderful, isn't it?

  3. This is one of those books that I really didn't think I would like - not a fan of short stories - but boy was I wrong! You are quite right to say that it "runs against any possible expectations and defies predictability." Thanks for highlighting it - I may be tempted to go read it again!

  4. Wow, straight on the list! What beautiful illustrations.

  5. These illustrations are so beautiful! I don't usually love short stories, but I might make an exception for these.

  6. I've got to get this! My class would love it, and apparently, so would I. Thanks for writing about it, Darla.

  7. What is the surprise the exchange student leaves behind??!

  8. Wasn't it awesome??? I loved Eric and Granpa's Story so much too!!! Especially "Eric"...I don't know what it was about that little story, but something about it just touched me. Great review Darla!! As always :)

  9. Oh I hate it when a book is too good to write about! I'm like that with the House of Night series which I still haven't reviewed even though I've read them all twice. These are wonderful illustrations though.

  10. *huge sigh* My library system still hasn't bought this. I'm contemplating going down to the collection office and crying tears of blood. Or, y'know, sending naggy emails. Whichever.

  11. NatalieSap - I'm so glad you feel the same way. It is hard to convey the effect these stories had on my imagination!

    Mariel - Can't wait to hear what you think of this one!

    Jenny - And they are not really traditional stories, mostly, more like odd vignettes that combine with the amazing illustrations. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Dolce Bellezza - Many of these would make fun read-alouds, particularly as they give so much food for thought. I'd love to be a fly on the wall to hear your kids discussing some of these. :-)

    VA Gal - You'll definitely have to find the book and see the picture. Words couldn't do it justice.

    Chris - Yes! It was amazing. I'm glad you enjoyed those stories, too. I also like the one about the secret courtyards. I want one of those in my house! :-)

    Ladytink - It is hard to articulate why certain books are so amazing. I hope you'll write reviews of the House of Night books some day, though - I'd love to hear what you have to say. I have only read the first one - I bet you'd convince me to continue on with the series!

    Bibliovore - How can your library NOT have this book? That is crazy talk. What are they thinking? Definitely tears of blood and probably some histrionics. Perhaps bribery with doughnuts? Seriously, though, if you request the book and give them some links (or just mention) where the book is well reviewed, that can influence them to buy it. That's what I do when I want our collection department to purchase something our system doesn't own. It usually works, but in this current economy, not as often as it used to. Good luck!

  12. This was pretty great. I read it near the end of last year and quite enjoyed it.

  13. Kailana - I'm glad you enjoyed it, too. Can't wait to see what he does next!

  14. I just bought this one! I can't wait to read it. Very soon...

  15. Beth - I'll be looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


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