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:
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...
"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."
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."