“Tales from Outer Suburbia” by Australian author-illustrator Shaun Tan is a collection of 15 hard-to-characterize pieces, including a faux found poem and step-by-step instructions for assembling your own pet from “burnt-out kitchen appliances, obsolete computer parts, defunct cassette players… whatever takes your fancy.”
Tan is this year’s winner of the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Literature. While “Tales” is marketed for young adults, I can imagine children who appreciate “The Stinky Cheese Man” or Arnold Lobel’s “Fables” getting a mind-expanding kick out of these stories, too.
Well-known as a graphic novelist and maker of animated films, Tan sometimes counts on illustrations to carry the narrative. For example, in “Eric,” a tiny, pointy-headed foreign exchange student comes to live with the narrator’s family. Rather than staying in the newly repainted guest room, Eric elects to bed down in a teacup in the pantry – a decision the narrator’s mother speculates “must be a cultural thing.”
The narrator’s family does their best to show Eric a good time, but Eric is so polite it’s hard to know if he is enjoying himself. When Eric leaves abruptly – the illustration shows him riding a breeze-born leaf out the window – the family is left with an uncomfortable lack of closure until…
Wow! The final full-bleed spread epitomizes the adage about the relative value of pictures and words.
It should be obvious from the quotations that Tan’s prose is as evocative and unexpectedly beautiful as his drawing. My least favorite story in the book is “Alert but not Alarmed” owing to a too-pat moral. However, the terrific opening line begs to be quoted: “It’s funny how these days, when every household has its own intercontinental ballistic missile, you hardly even think about them.”
Some of Tan’s pastel and pencil illustrations have the look of Japanese woodblock prints while others display the geometric strength of Wayne Thiebaud’s metropolitan landscapes. Into these scenes Tan often introduces wispy, fragile-looking characters like Eric the exchange student, or like the thistle-headed wraiths of “Stick Figures,” who are “not a problem, just another part of the suburban landscape, their brittle legs moving as slowly as clouds.”
More solid is the central figure in my favorite story, “Broken Toys,” an apparent crazy person wearing a deep-sea diving suit who first appears “over there by the underpass, feeling his way along the graffiti-covered wall.” Like the book as a whole, “Broken Toys” has an ending that’s surprising, happy and strange all at once.