Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan
Tan invites readers to consider the perils of suburban life and its numbing of the senses in these 15 stories and strips. In a one-page story with one full-page illustration, a water buffalo stands like a wise totem in a vacant lot, wordlessly and "literally point-[ing] us in the right direction"--until the neighbors' problems become "urgent," they stop visiting, and he goes away. A foreign exchange student who resembles a walking leaf (and whose name is difficult to pronounce, so the narrator calls him "Eric") silently poses questions to his hosts about what makes a stamp adhere to a letter or why a drain is shaped like a flower; then Eric leaves suddenly but with a parting gift of tiny plants that grow in the dark cupboard where he had stayed. The related images of Eric all appear in black-and-white except for these brightly colored tendrils and petals that spring from castoff caps, peanut shells and pencil sharpeners. The tale "Broken Toys" reveals deep emotion and kindness behind a seemingly cruel neighbor the narrator nicknames "Mrs. Bad News." In each tale, Tan seems to suggest that the children remain open to the small gifts life brings, while the adults grow distracted and, hence, immune to them. Tan smoothly varies the pacing, alternating shorter pieces with longer ones, more narrative pieces with more visual ones, the loose pen-and-inks of "Grandpa's Story" with the highly stylized Edward Hopper-esque backdrops of "Stick Figures." One of the loveliest selections, "Distant Rain," is tucked into the middle of the book: "Have you ever wondered what happens to all the poems people write?" the piece begins. Tan fits together into a collage images of the different ways that he imagines people flush away their creative work for fear of others' response. But he also pictures "some especially insistent pieces of writing" escaping, gathering force into a kind of snowball until it hovers like a moon, then bursts, "faded words pressed into accidental verse." The book offers teens a model of the wide spectrum of ways to approach a story or theme, both with brief or longer text, and a variety of media--from pencils to collage to paints. With his recurring images of empty blocks and lonely dogs, Tan suggests that the danger begins when we stop seeing the details and perceive only the sameness. The author-artist brings all of the pieces together with a closing exchange between the narrator and his brother: "The farther we ventured, the more everything looked the same. . . . Only the names were different." What a powerful message for citizens of all ages, especially teens who are hardwired to question everything around them. Tan suggests that human beings are not meant to accept the status quo; we merely get lulled into it if we do not remain awake and alert.