"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · Lit · recommend · short story · Tales · wondermous · young adult lit

Tales by Shaun Tan in Outer Suburbia

My morning was all pleasurable sighs at the breakfast table. No, this is not a post on erotica or other such sense; nor would I be considered a foodie. I am referring to, in this instance, to sitting down at the table with Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2008).

from Alert but not Alarmed

In an attempt to find a new graphic novel to read at the Library, I picked past the manga on the Teen shelves and selected Tales from Outer Suburbia. No, I hadn’t expected to find it there either. I’d flipped through it at the store once, and I do adore Shaun Tan’s work, so naturally I took it home and promptly set it aside. It proved a nice accompaniment to my morning chai.

Tales from Outer Suburbia may be shelved with graphic novels, but I embrace Tan’s own moniker ‘picture book.’

While I describe them as ‘picture books’, they are not created with children in mind, but rather a general audience. I see each book as an experiment in visual and written narrative, part of an ongoing exploration of this fascinating literary form.~Shaun Tan (website)

I was uber-geeked over the table of contents. The page numbers as cent designations, the sweet little capture from the story’s illustrations…

Tales from Outer Suburbia is a picture book that houses 15 short, illustrated stories. And it is achingly well-done.

Each [story] is about a strange situation or event that occurs in an otherwise familiar suburban world; a visit from a nut-sized foreign exchange student, a sea creature on someone’s front lawn, a new room discovered in a family home, a sinister machine installed in a park, a wise buffalo that lives in a vacant lot. The real subject of each story is how ordinary people react to these incidents, and how their significance is discovered, ignored or simply misunderstood. ~Shaun Tan (website)

from Wake. The illustration is intriguing, as is the story that accompanies it…

With Tan’s talent as an artist, his ability to render lush and evocative images, it is an added insult that he be such a fantastic word-weaver as well. I could just stare at his illustrations all day long, slowly flipping through the pages of the book for the sake of the pictures alone, but his worded stories are also quite compelling.

I love the way the stories were  non-uniformly laid out amidst their accompanying illustrations; the mixed-media approach with some of the stories; really, all the creative ways Tan enhances the story, because they’re not merely a frivolity.

The Amnesia Machine

The text in the surrounding articles is quite important. Loved the “Thought for the Day” quote beneath the soduku puzzle: “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” ~Saul Bellow; it’s very fitting. This short story very nicely precedes Alert but not Alarmed.

the last page of Distant Rain

Distant Rain is created out of varying scraps of paper with equally varying fonts and images to create and enhance the thematic content. A gorgeous piece.

Above is one of my favorite illustrations from Tales from Outer Suburbia and is from one of my favorite stories as well, Grandpa’s Story–sweet, humorously outlandish, and incredibly poignant.

Tales from Outer Suburbia ends with Night of the Turtle Rescue. So energetic and urgent and lingering. Shaun Tan captures “ordinary people” in this collection and the final story punctuates it.

Short story readers will enjoy this collection. The seemingly effortless revelatory detail Tan places in his illustrations is a gift he’s duplicated in his writing. It may take a second reading, if one is not prepared to take a picture book of short illustrated stories somewhat seriously. It’s breathtaking really. You won’t mind reading this collection of stories over and over again. Tales of Outer Suburbia is a must own.

Shaun Tan’s site.

powell’s books link.

7 thoughts on “Tales by Shaun Tan in Outer Suburbia

  1. Possibly the best opening paragraph for a review I’ve ever read. Hilarious. Plus, the book looks amazing. Its sporadic sense of story seems right up my alley. Looks like I’ll check the library.

    1. i wrote the first sentence and then felt the immediate need to clarify…

      i hope you enjoy it logan, i think you will. it is simply beautiful.


  2. Tales from Outer Suburbia would have to be counted as one of my favorite delightful reads. I read it a few years back (if memory serves) and fell in love with it. I had already been a fan of Tan’s work and this just deepened that fandom. It is sort of crappy of him to be such a talented artist and writer. Its hardly fair! 🙂 Truth be told, I’m quite grateful for his gift. His stories, including The Red Tree, have resonated deeply with me. His work inspires and comforts. I cannot wait to see his Academy Award winning film adaptation of The Lost Thing.

    1. i envy his gift, but i am oh so grateful for it. his work does resonate. There was a touch of melancholy in some of the stories in Tales from Outer Suburbia that I really savored, so sweet and aching.

      and we, too, are eager to see The Lost Thing.


  3. Fantastic review!
    I am studying English too and am about to finish an essay on ‘Wake’.
    If you like Shaun Tan you may also like Ezra Pound’s work – an oldie but a goodie.
    I am a huge fan of both 🙂
    Thank you for your insight – it was very helpful for trying to sculpt my essay 🙂

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