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Suburbia in a Different Light

February 18, 2009

originally uploaded by cHeLa.B..

One of the things I wanted to do with this blog was share the wonderful things I come across. So that’s what I’m going to do today.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I love books. I love sitting down to read them in a comfy spot, I love the pictures (if there are any), and I love an author who can skillfully handle this cockamamie language of ours.

One of my favorite authors out there right now is Shaun Tan. He’s an Australian writer/illustrator with an entire host of startling and breathtaking works. He’s one of those that have spent much of their careers cruising under the radar of mainstream America (likely because his US publishing house, Simply Read Books, isn’t one of our heavyweights).

I fell in love with him when I read The Red Tree, a book about a day that “starts out with nothing to look forward to”. We’ve all had that day. You know the one. Where “things go from bad to worse”. What impressed me about Tan was that he didn’t sugar coat that day. He didn’t tell me (because yes, he was speaking directly to me) to look on the bight side, to buck up, or to keep on keeping on. He exposed that day with full frontal melancholy and confusion. He recognized what even those closest to us don’t always see—sometimes you can’t just snap out of it. Sometimes you’re isolated and unsure of yourself. Sometimes you feel like nothing will ever change. But just when you, and the book, reach the breaking point, the point when depression threatens to overwhelm entirely, the red tree appears. The red tree, the light at the end of the tunnel, whatever else you may call it, it’s there. Glorious, and uplifting. That’s when you realize that if you look closely, it was there all along. Literally.

In each illustration, there is a little red leaf, as if Waldo met antidepressants and decided he could be put to better use. This kind of detail is part of how Shaun Tan stole my heart. Tan has mastered the very difficult relationship between form and content. His illustrations do not just depict what his words describe. They make readers feel it along with his characters.

An excellent example of this can be found in The Arrival, his acclaimed graphic novel that depicts the experience of an immigrant, without words. Children and adults reading The Arrival are forced to empathize with the primary character, as they too must navigate through a world with different language, customs, animals, and foods, without the comfort of the familiar. He was able to show the universality of our experience as humans, without using tools that are in themselves barriers (like the English language, for example).

His latest book, Tales from Outer Suburbia, is a combination of the qualities that make both The Red Tree and The Arrival noteworthy, aimed at a more mature reader. As opposed to the other two, most of the abstraction and fantasy comes from the stories rather than the images, but is by no means esoteric or removed. In his neighborhood giant sea dwelling duggats are found beached miles away from the sea, houses contain secret oases, and everyone has a missile in their yard. The illustrations are complimentary and informative in this work, but again it’s really his talent as a storyteller that shines. I was reminded of The Little Prince (another favorite of mine) while I poured over each vignette. The morals and lessons in each of these tales are simple but necessary reminders of how to live and the absurdity of it all. They are tailored to fit a modern audience and world.  In fact, they are so applicable to daily life that if I ever get married I plan on reading “Grandpa’s Story” at my wedding.

Well as usual I’ve been long winded, and as usual I’ve left other things undone in order to sit here and relay my thoughts. Of course, I’ve had a lovely time doing so, but now I think its time to face the music and do my chores.


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