“whenever we had followed his pointy hoof we’d always been surprised, relieved, and delighted at what we’d found. And every time we’d said exactly the same thing – ‘How did he know?’”
– Shaun Tan, from “The Water Buffalo” in Tales from Outer Suburbia
If I had to say which picture book is my favourite of all picture books, I would have to say The Lost Thing. But if I’m going to be honest, that’s because I don’t consider Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008) to be just one picture book. With fifteen short stories/ picture books (picture shorts?), Tales from Outer Suburbia is on a completely different scale than anything else I have ever read. The Lost Thing is my favourite picture book as one whole story, but Tales from Outer Suburbia as a collection of picture books, as a whole made of many parts, is my absolute favourite on its own level.
When I was young I lived in a large house on the outskirts of a small town. I hated living so far away from everything (which wasn’t much of anything), and was envious of my best friend, who could walk from school to his house in the suburbs. So when I say that you don’t have to have lived in suburbia to fully appreciate a series of stories written by a man who grew up in suburbia, you can trust me. This isn’t really a collection of stories about suburbia, it is much more than that.
As each story is so short, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what they are each about, that would spoil the whole book. In fact, I would venture to argue that part of the joy of reading this book is the journey of discovery. Spoilers would ruin this book. While this might mean that a second reading of this book might not be as good as the first reading, what I am really arguing is that mystery is a driving force behind this work. For example, in stories like “The Water Buffalo” or “Eric” or “Our Expedition” a mystery is presented, but never really solved. However, that’s where the sublime effect lies, in its absolute mystery. Wonder is presented but not made logical, and is thus kept wondrous.
As we are now into May and into the theme of cross over fiction, let’s take a moment to consider who this text is for. “No Other Country” is a re-invention of the portal-quest fantasy (a subgenre more typically for children, such as Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), though this story features far less adventure and a lot more peace. Then there’s “How to Make a Pet,” which has a near identical art style as The Lost Thing and is about making a pet – it’s silly and adorable. However, there are also stories like “The Amnesia Machine” that is dystopian and deeply political, and stories like “Night of the Turtle Rescue” and “Stick Figures” that are absolutely bone-chillingly terrifying.
Furthermore, there are also stories like “Grandpa’s Story” that takes the hero’s quest to find the magic token in order to marry the princess, and subverts that sexism by presenting the feminist story of two equal fiancées on a dangerous, life-threatening scavenger-hunt as part of their marriage ceremony. This is a story that can thrill young children, but also intellectually stimulate older readers. “The Nameless Holiday” is like an anti-Christmas, and presents primarily child characters but a story that might not thrill child readers with its anti-capitalist sentiments. Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps it’s the adult that might have a harder time swallowing the idea it presents.
So where does this leave us? Is this a picture book appropriate for children? Some of the stories are an absolute yes; other stories are maybe up to the discretion of an adult. What I can say, however, is that this picture book is a work of art, not only in its images, but also in its words. The writing is sheer poetry, and as a collection, these stories read together create a sublime experience that can take your breath away. That is not to say that there is a flow from one story to the next, they seem to be completely unrelated from one another. Rather I am saying that each story will make you feel, and as you slowly move from one emotion to the next, you may find that Tales from Outer Suburbia has taken your breath away.
Or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will leave your head spinning in its chaos, leave you disoriented and confused. Totally fair. This can’t be a picture book for everyone, and I am definitely guilty of some bias as someone who loves it. But I can see how the frightening scenes mixed with the playful ones could leave a reader unsure of not only who the text is for, but also what the text is for. It might just leave you sitting there, stunned and pondering – trying to figure it out.
Well my response to that is this – good. If The Lost Thing makes you question, The Red Tree make you feel, and The Arrival make you empathize, then Tales from Outer Suburbia should make you think. Enjoyed or hated, interesting or baffling, Tales from Outer Suburbia is a book for both young and old to stop and really begin to take a moment and to just think.