Tuesday, September 4

The Arrival

Shaun Tan
Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic 2007

Okay: wow.

I have this feeling everyone is going to fall all over this book (if they haven't already) for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Tan put four years into researching and preparing this book and every minute of every day of those four years is visible on the page. In his wordless tale of the immigrant experience you get the full feeling of the stranger in an extremely strange land, where daily life requires complicated negotiations, huge adjustments, and calls to question what it means exactly to understand the cultural "other."

It's a tale of a father going abroad on his own to negotiate a new life for himself and his family, to settle in and save up enough to bring his wife and daughter to the new land of opportunity. Along the way the main character meets up with several others who have their own tales and experiences to share. It's a city of strangers, of immigrants, this new and unusual world, and all the "back homes" are shown in a variety of metaphors for all the reasons one would seek shelter in a new land. Betrayed by their homelands, stories are told of dark, mammoth tentacles flailing about the edges of the old worlds, the giants that vacuum up citizens in cleansing raids, the militaristic fascism that captures the hearts and minds of young men and exact payments in the form of life and limb. The Arrival then is nothing short of a fantastical look back at the history of the American 20th century... or a forward-looking landscape into a world we have yet to envision for ourselves.

Like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this book is neither fish nor fowl, neither a picture book nor a graphic novel, though it more closely resembles the latter. In testimonial Art Spiegelman refers to this as "a novel told in graphics (not cartoons), a wordless story that uses the language of silent cinema." And like those early silent movies -- often created by immigrants and for the entertainment of immigrants -- the universal language is that of humanity, of people dealing with one another, sometimes harshly and sometimes humorously but always bound by the spirit of the struggle and survival that binds them together.

I said it a while back and I'll say it again: the graphic novel in children's literature needs to be recognized as a separate beast from either traditional fiction or picture books, and they require their own awards. I'm not necessarily insisting this book deserves any of the ALA awards but it is inane that a book like this could be considered along side picture books or traditional narrative fiction; Worse, it would be criminal not to consider this book worthy of those awards. The problem isn't going to go away any time soon and the longer it goes unaddressed the more problematic the situation will become.


Sara said...

I've heard rumblings about this book in other places, but seeing these pictures makes me want to be reading it right now.

I think it's hard to adequately review graphic novels without showing the pictures, but that's not always allowed. So then you're stuck with trying to fumble about and say what it would have been so easy to show. And I agree with you on the awards problem, but if I had to choose, I would compare books like these to novels rather than picture books.

VirtualT said...

wow. that book looks amazing. I might have to get that for myself.


david elzey said...

I'm not so sure, Sara. I've seen plenty of reviews of graphic novels that don't rely on images and, in fact, are nearly identical to "regular" book reviews. The comic book industry has been reviewing materials the same as traditional books for years and, in the end, it comes down to the ability of the person reviewing to convey the same sort of information.

I think with picture books for kids we can get a little greedy in wanting those images to make a direct and immediate impact on us. But I also think we don't do enough to educate ourselves (and younger readers) in the mechanics of reading pictures, learning how to savor what they have to offer. That is where I feel that graphic novels have their hardest row to hoe with the kidlit sector because it requires a different set of tools.

Monica Edinger said...

I too think this book is amazing. Interestingly, today I had a meeting with my 4th grade colleagues and gave each one a poster of The Arrival that I'd picked up for them at ALA. I then showed them the ARC (is the book itself hardback?) and they were wowed. We all put the posters up for our students as they will be arriving too in a a few days and we already use the metaphor of their being "immigrants" to a new building and division (Middle School vs. Lower School.)

But one thing --- this book is Australian isn't it? So while we American readers may see it as our history, I wonder. I assumed that Australia had a similar one to ours in this regard, that is. (You wrote, " The Arrival then is nothing short of a fantastical look back at the history of the American 20th century...")

fusenumber8 said...

Best damn book of the year and it won't win much of anything at all. Why? Because it falls between the cracks. It's like nothing that's ever been before, so no one wants to touch it. This has been the year of the undefinable title. Those books that don't slot neatly into a category but blow everyone away.

david elzey said...

Yes, Monica, the book is hardcover, and it's only $20, which seems like a steal to me.

As for the American history vs. Australian history comment, I thought about that and while I'm sure Tan is taking a general approach to the immigration experience I was merely pointing out how succinctly it summarizes the American experience... or at least how it used to be when we were an open-minded nation proud of its melting pot. The great thing about the illustrations is that they allow for that very interpretation that every reader brings to the book; I brought my American baggage along for the trip.

Which is to say that I didn't intend to define the author's intent so much as underscore how well Tan's research allows for that interpretation... as well as a general warning against a dark future. I was toying with naming an Orwellian comment (British fascism) and some African and Eastern European ethnic cleansing parallels before settling on the comment I did make.

Glad to hear your fellow teachers embraced those posters. I've been in a few schools in my day that would have frowned on anything so "controversial" being shown on classroom walls.