Welcome! You have just arrived at day three of The Book Wars’ “Five Days with Shaun Tan.” These past two days we have looked at two picture books with characters that have lost their way. In The Lost Thing (2000), the protagonist finds a creature that is literally lost, and finds it a new home in a sort of utopian space. In The Red Tree (2001) the protagonist is emotionally lost, suffering from sadness and not knowing who she is or where she is going in life. Now it is time to be found, it is time to arrive somewhere, so let us look at Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (2006).
There is no anecdotal story to go along with this picture book, as I don’t actually have an experience that can relate to it. I have travelled to a few different countries, but that’s not quite the same. The Arrival is the story of a family that lives in a town with dangerous snake-like creatures. The father/husband character leaves home and travels to a utopian city to find work, and raise the money needed to bring his wife and daughter to the city as well. This is, at its core, a story about immigration.
The most beautiful part of this book is that there are absolutely no words whatsoever and this story is told entirely in pictures. Not only that, but whenever there are words, they are of a fictional alphabet. In this way, for every reader, no matter where in the world they are from or what language(s) they speak, this story has (theoretically) the same impact. The reader, along with the protagonist, is completely ignorant of the world they have entered, and must learn through guessing and with the help of other characters.
The first time I read this picture book (if you can call it that, it has won awards for comic books, and what medium this book is can be easily contested; but as it’s a book with pictures, we’re going to include it today) it took me an hour. Not too long, but longer than most picture books. It was just long enough to get through all 128 pages while paying close attention to the incredible detail of the sketches of each individual picture. The lack of words actually adds a great deal to this story, suggesting that language can often be a barrier to understanding, and showing how we can all relate and understand each other as equals if we just pay attention to the details of one another. There is something absolutely beautiful about that I think.
Of course, it is also important to remember that this picture book presents a very unrealistic experience of immigration in one key way. While I am not an immigrant myself, I can believe the difficulties surrounding how to work public transportation or how to buy groceries as the protagonist does. What I do not believe, however, is just how unbelievably kind the strangers are in this story. The protagonist is often offered help, and whenever he needs to ask is always provided it. In the world of this picture book, xenophobia and racism simply do not exist – something that is unfortunately not true of this world.
The question that this leaves us with is: is Shaun Tan doing the reader a disservice by omitting a monumental barrier that immigrants face and thus misrepresenting immigrant and refugee experiences, or is he allowing the reader an opportunity to be grateful for the kindness of strangers when they wouldn’t expect it, thus encouraging similar behaviour? Ultimately I think what’s more important is how each individual reader responds to the text, and I think the text does more good than harm. This is a work that encourages a deep emotional investment and is more complex than what is on the surface. You read this story not sure what is going to happen next, but hoping beyond hope that there’s no catch to this utopia, and that everything will work out in the end. If empathy can be taught, The Arrival can be used to teach it.
The art of this picture book (or graphic novel, whatever you want to call it, I honestly do not think it really matters for the purpose of this review) is really interesting when compared to Tan’s previous work. While The Lost Thing is clearly a surrealist work, and The Red Tree takes on many different styles and colours, The Arrival is mostly realistic looking (with some minor elements of fantasy) in its pencil drawings that vary in colour from grey to sepia. Despite this lack of colour, many of the pictures are absolutely breathtaking, such as this image of the city:
It is difficult to say what age this picture book would be for. There are elements of this picture book that young children could enjoy, such as the strange animal-like creature the protagonist encounters in his new apartment:
However, in other scenes the protagonist meets other characters who tell their own reasons for taking refuge in this city, presenting dark, horrifying images (this isn’t even the scariest one!):
If this is not a crossover picture book, then I do not know what is. This is a picture book that is obviously political, deeply emotional, absolutely horrifying and unbelievably beautiful. After reading this picture book, you may need to take a moment and just let it sink in. When you’re done that… “read” it again.