Friday, January 10, 2014

ReadItDaddy's Book of the Week - Week Ending 10th January 2014 - "The Arrival" by Shaun Tan (Hodder Children's Books)



The Arrival

Written and Illustrated by
Shaun Tan

Published by Hodder Children's Books

Our first book of the week of 2014 is a book we've been meaning to get around to for a very long time. Shaun Tan's "The Arrival" is a book that so many people have praised and recommended to us that we couldn't ignore the clamour of positive voices any longer. Naturally everyone was right, this is by far one of the most amazing children's books ever produced and one that cements Tan into place as one of our favourite children's author-illustrators.

But is it even fair to label this as a children's book? Certainly it's not an easy subject to tackle and it's an extremely difficult book to 'read' to a child for several reasons.

Firstly, it's wordless. Secondly, it deals with a fairly grown up subject (or an entire set of subjects actually, it's that granular) and thirdly it's quite long and involving so definitely not a quick bedtime read by any measure.

But it's an astonishing piece of work. Breaking slightly away from his usual style, Tan claimed he felt uncomfortable illustrating "The Arrival" with its semi-photographic style, and the use of live models throughout to ensure that the human characters are absolutely spot on (and they are).

"So the giants are killing every one with the fiery hoovers on their backs? That's horrible!"- Charlotte

A man leaves his wife and child, and his home country behind as dark dragon-like shadows stalk through their city. Wrenched from his family, the man embarks on a long and difficult journey to a new land where nothing is quite as it seems, where the familiar and unfamiliar rub shoulders and the language barrier is just one of a number of obstacles set to make the man's new life as tough as possible.

The new world is vibrant, surreal and full of wonder. As the man struggles through immigration (chilling scenes here that echo what most refugees have to put up with at border controls) and adjusts to the customs of his newfound home, he thinks of his family and what he must do to earn enough to get back to them.

Kindly (and not so kindly) strangers are met, and in one particularly harrowing set of pages, another refugee tells his own story.

Pause for a moment. If you've ever seen movies like "War of the Worlds" where the alien killing machines make that sort of horrific half air-raid siren / half fog-horn noise, that's the noise you'll have in your head as the stranger recounts the tale of the giants who destroyed his land (and in such a horrific way too. This bit was probably a bit too disturbing for Charlotte and in subsequent readings we've hurried past it briskly but right there is one of the darkest scenes in any graphic novel let alone children's book).

The richness, the cleverness of Tan's visual mind spills onto every page. If anything, it's almost too detailed - you can get lost in the pages of "The Arrival" for hours as you pore over every tiny little stroke rendered with such attention and care.

"I would like a pet like that!" - Charlotte

"The Arrival" is worthy of all the praise we can heap on it and more, and others who have recently experienced it will probably feel the need to do as we did when we first read Shaun Tan's books, hunt down the rest and read them all.

Wordless picture books allow us to interpret their granularity in our own way. For me, obvious allegorical comparisons to the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany as World War II broke out are unavoidable. For Charlotte, the beginning of understanding what it must be like to be a stranger in a strange land, forced to emigrate to feed your family or just to stay alive.

Stunning, scintillating, vital. Do not miss it.

Charlotte's best bit: The man's rather engaging lizard-dog-fish-pet and all the other wonderful hybrid creatures Shaun Tan is so expert at drawing. 

Daddy's Favourite bit: An absolute belter of a first Book of the Week for us. One that will stand up to being pored over for years to come and establishing Tan as a supreme storytelling and illustrative talent. Can the man do no wrong?

2 comments :

  1. I just read this one too. Before reading it hadn't even occurred to me that it was for children (despite the fact that his other books are) as it's usually just put in the graphic novels section rather than the kids section of bookshops. I think it's mostly fine for kids, and while there are some dark moments it's not much darker than many fairytales.
    It's beautifully illustrated and the wordlessness is good at 1) communicating the protagonist's helplessness and difficulties with the language, and 2) for getting kids to learn to "read" pictures rather than just the words. Many of the images are open to interpretation, which is fun to talk through with the kids as you read.
    My only criticism of the story is that the land to which he moves seems pretty idyllic and easy: there are none of the problems many immigrants encounter with prejudice or aggression. While this is probably better from a children's story point of view, I thought it made it less dramatic and realistic. All the protagonist has to do is adjust to local customs and language and everything works out fine.
    Still, a beautiful book.

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  2. It's definitely the least child-friendly of Tan's books but because of the wordlessness, it's actually one that children can get into and interpret in their own way. Even with the darker bits in the book (the exterminators bit, and the guy's expressions just before he relates the story), children actually understand exactly what's going on fairly quickly without having to have the book wrapped in kid gloves.

    Definitely a book to treasure.

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