Book Review: ‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’ by Shaun Tan
Published on behalf of Anna Fleming, Young Person's Project Worker
Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of short stories written and illustrated by Shaun Tan. Each story is intriguing and unusual, telling tales of strange visitors or happenings in otherwise ordinary suburban neighbourhoods.
The book is beautifully illustrated with pictures that form part of the stories. They are highly expressive, with rich colours and lots of detail.
Some are small images, illustrating a part of the story. For example in ‘Eric’, a story about a foreign exchange student, pictures show the strange questions he asks (“Eric was very curious and always had plenty of questions”). In one, Eric holds a drawing of a flower with a question mark beside a plug.
Other pictures cover double pages. ‘Eric’ is concluded with one such picture. All the other pictures in the story are small and black and white, creating a dreary tone. This accompanies the overwhelming sense of misunderstanding between Eric and his hosts. It is explained away as “a cultural thing”, yet this phrase never enables one to gain a better understanding of Eric. However, the final picture explains what Eric had been doing and had been interested in: in the darkness of the pantry, from small grey objects (bottle lids, wrappers, a pencil sharpener), Eric has grown bright, glowing plants and flowers. He leaves a message, “Thank you for a wonderful time”, which resolves the lingering doubts and “uncomfortable feeling” Eric’s hosts had about his visit and sudden departure (“Did Eric seem upset? Did he enjoy his visit?”).
Tales from Outer Suburbia captures the imagination and interest of even the most reluctant readers. I read one to one with Looked After Children in Liverpool and it is amazing to see how the young people respond to it. D, who is 11, is very easily distracted and has a short concentration span. It has been very difficult to find a book that interests her and holds her attention. Tales from Outer Suburbia fascinated D. She was engaged and focussed for the full hour reading session, whereas normally she loses interest in reading after 10 minutes.
'Broken Toys' is my favourite. Mrs Bad News must be happy at the end coz she stops breaking the toys. Its weird and its really good.
D offered lots of interesting insight into every character and bizarre situation, changing my understanding of the stories and bringing new meanings. For example, in ‘Broken Toys’ a mysterious Japanese man appears in a diving suit, transforming ‘Mrs Bad News’ into a friendlier neighbour. D thought:
Maybe it’s her long lost son and that’s why she was sad and angry?
After reading a selection of stories with K, she decided that ‘Eric’ was her favourite. Originally she had flicked through and not liked the look of it because it was so grey and looked ‘boring’. K is shy and reserved. She is very lacking in confidence and finds it hard to express herself, so it was really interesting to tease out what she liked so much about ‘Eric’:
It’s full of feelings, its very kind.
The week after when I read with K she said, “‘Eric’s my favourite.” I asked her why, and after some consideration she said:
That was like me when I came into care. I didn't know anything (like what an aeroplane was) and I was dead confused. He's like an alien. It’s not like anything I've ever read, it’s the best story I’ve ever read.
It was incredibly moving to hear K open up and share such personal thoughts. It was an amazing insight into the profound effect that story has had on K. She was very surprised to recognise herself in a book, and it pushed her to express herself in a way she rarely does.
This book would be fantastic to use with readers of any age: from 10 year olds to adults. The stories prompt questions that challenge the assumptions you make about people and happenings. They are stories that linger because they are so charming, intriguing and ambiguous.
‘Distant Rain’ speculates on what happens to private, unread poetry. Eventually it builds into an immense, floating poetry ball, before rain causes it to fall as a pulpy mess into streets; a mess which contains ‘faded words pressed into accidental verse.’ The story concludes with words that describe the indefinable feeling of optimism you are left with after reading the stories from Tales from Outer Suburbia:
No one will be able to explain the strange feeling of weightlessness or the private smile that remains long after the street sweepers have come and gone.
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