The Arrival, Shaun Tan, 128 pp, ages 4 and up

The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a beautiful, magical, haunting, hopeful, human story told entirely in pictures. Like the experience of the main character who comes to a new land and makes his way with the help of others, I have relied on the words of others to help me write and shape this review. The review of The Arrival at started with a quote form one of my favorite authors, Philip Pullman, and is the perfect place to begin writing and thinking about this exceptional book:

"Stories can be presented in the form of words, but they can also be presented in the form of pictures.... Whatever stories are made of, words aren't fundamental to it. Something else is. And what I think is fundamental to the narrative process is events -- stories are made of events."

The event that begins the story of Shaun Tan's book is a father leaving his wife and child to find a better life in a new land, a life that his family might be able to join him in one day. While the plot of the book can be told in one or two sentences, the experience of reading The Arrival can take up paragraphs of writing. Of his work, Tan has said that he has a recurring interest in "notions of 'belonging', particularly finding or losing it." Tan is a native of Perth, Australia, which he describes as being "one of the most isolated cities in the world, sandwiched between a vast desert and a vaster ocean." His father emigrated there from Malaysia in 1960 to study architecture. Being half Chinese at "a time and a place when this was fairly unusual" the concept of belonging is not new to Tan. The Arrival is rich with this theme and the circular journey that occurs in this book is deeply rewarding, as are the connections between characters that are made, both adults and children. This is one aspect of the book that left a deep impression on me. The immigrants of this story, perhaps because in their ignorance of the language of their new home as well as the customs, are able to interact with and be helped by children in ways that are not always part of everyday life. It is a child and his father who befriend the main character of the story and, at the end of the book, it is his daughter, newly reunited with her father, who helps a lost immigrant find her way.

Of his choice to create a book without words Tan says,

In The Arrival, the absence of any written description also plants the reader more firmly in the shoes of an immigrant character. There is no guidance as to how the images might be interpreted, and we must ourselves search for meaning and seek familiarity in a world where such things are either scarce or concealed. Words have a remarkable magnetic pull on our attention, and how we interpret attendant images: in their absence, an image can often have more conceptual space around it, and invite a more lingering attention from a reader who might otherwise reach for the nearest convenient caption, and let that rule their imagination.

Although there are no words to influence how we interpret Tan's story, there are images that will be familiar to adults. In his Artist's Note Tan refers to books, works of art and photographs that contributed to the world he created in his book. Most immediately recognizable to will be the visual references to Ellis Island, photographs of which Tan based some of his drawings, as well as images of The Titanic. In spite of various associations and influences, Tan's book is completely his own, entirely unique and communal at the same time - if that's possible. The influence of these familiar images are muted by the fantasy aspects that Tan weaves into his story. There are creatures, both fierce and benign, who inhabit the pages of this story. Resembling elegantly drawn Pokémon characters, these creatures act a bit like the "dæmons" of Philip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy. They are always with their human, but also interacting and making connections with other creatures and they seem to be a symbol of belonging, or arrival in this new city and culture. The landscape of this new city is also crowded with amazing sights, much like New York City must have seemed to immigrants as they arrived on its streets. Tan's imagination is abundant with new interpretations of everyday things like vegetables, mailboxes and cityscapes. The artwork in Tan's book is done in monochromatic tones, utilizing browns and grey. As Tan says of his illustrative choices for
The Arrival. I was also struck with the idea of borrowing the ‘language’ of old pictorial archives and family photo albums I’d been looking at, which have both a documentary clarity and an enigmatic, sepia-toned silence. It occurred to me that photo albums are really just another kind of picture book that everybody makes and reads, a series of chronological images illustrating the story of someone’s life. They work by inspiring memory and urging us to fill in the silent gaps, animating them with the addition of our own storyline.

Like the photo albums he references, Tan's illustrations sometimes incorporate the cracks and creases that are found in old photographs, adding to the antique, scrapbook feel of the story. The illustrative style employed for The Arrival reminds me of a combination of the artistic styles of multiple Caldecott winners Chris VanAllsburg and David Weisner with a touch of Allen Say, who won the Caldecott for the magnificent Grandfather's Journey thrown in. Photo-realism is combined with fantastical creatures and creations, some pages having twelve panels of illustrations, some taking up a two page spread for one picture. As I was reading Shaun Tan's comments about influences for The Arrival, his mention of Raymond Briggs and his classic wordless holiday book, The Snowman. My family and I have loved this book since my daughter's first Christmas almost 20 years ago and I think that may be why The Arrival resonated with me.

For those of you new to graphic novels or books without words, please don't feel intimidated by this marvelous book. My husband sat down with my 5 year old son one evening and "read" him this book from cover to cover. I read it many times and will return to it often in the future, like all great picture books. I want to end this review with a quote from Caldecott winner David Small, illustrator of Elise Broach's superb picture book, When Dinosaur's Came with Everything, and now author and illustrator of his own graphic novel, an autobiography titled Stitches. On the back of The Arrival there is a raft of glowing reviews from a host of luminaries in the world of both picture books and graphic novels including Jon J Muth, Brian Selznick, Art Spiegleman, Jeff Smith and Marjane Satrapi. David Small adds to the praise when he writes, "Anyone who thinks that the graphic novel is no more than a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, ought to take a look at The Arrival. This magnificent work not only establishes itself in a major new literary genre but raises the stakes for anyone seriously considering working in it. Born of dreams and history, it is a story that seems to have been living in the depths of our unconscious; Shaun Tan reached deep down and brought it to light."

Below are just a few of the extraordinary illustrations from The Arrival.

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