There is more than one way to tell a story, and Shaun Tan uses the absence of words, surrealistic pencil drawings in sepia tones, and multiple points of view to tell the shared experience of modern-day immigrants.
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
From the beginning of the book, it is clear that The Arrival is about leaving old worlds and encountering new ones. The main storyline follows a young father, who leaves his wife and daughter behind to forge a life ahead for them in a new, industrialized city. He encounters various fears and obstacles along the way—language barriers, loneliness, unfamiliarity. However, he also encounters other sympathetic souls who have been on a similar journey. In a land where the language is not shared, they share their stories with him, giving him a sense of hope and community. Seasons pass, and the family is finally reunited, adding their story and paving the way for others to follow.
This graphic novel is a complete work of art. The cover is reminiscent of an old book, which sets up the expectation of narrative. The front and end pages are covered with various portraits of immigrants inspired by photographs taken at Ellis Island, New York, from 1892 to 1954. A graphic alphabet that is somewhat-Roman, somewhat-Cyrillic and not at all decipherable adds to a feeling of isolation. Tan tells much of the story through small sequences of still life portraits. Gradually, the smaller portraits focus the action until he finally treats us to the entire picture, and we see how the parts add up to the whole. His attention to detail with this particular technique is stunning, especially in the opening sequence when the father prepares to leave his family. Familiar household items that he is leaving behind give way to a wider view of the family where they can be seen in the context of the family kitchen. When the family is reunited, the same items can be seen again in sequenced still life, but this time, like the family, the items have changed and adapted for use in the new world. Another subtle technique is the subtle shift between sepia tones for creating the warmth of families and friendship and grayscale for creating the distance of sad stories, miscommunication and the unfamiliar. Various animal motifs are used throughout the book. In general, dragons and dragon-like creatures deliver a sense of heaviness and foreboding while birds offer light and hope throughout. Each immigrant has his or her own animagus/avatar/spirit guide that Tan borrows from anime tradition and his other works which adds a whimsical, fantastical element.
A true work of art offers something new to each person who views it, every time it is viewed. Tan’s book is a true work of art in this regard, and readers will enjoy finding new meaning each time they pick it up.
Awards and Reviews
Australian Children’s Book of the Year Awards
West Australian Premier’s Australia Asia Literary Award
American Library Association Notable Books for Children
Book Sense Book of the Year
Hugo Award Nominee
Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of the Year
Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards
Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards
Garden State Teen Book Award
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
“[Readers] will linger over the details in the beautiful sepia pictures and will likely pick up the book to pour over it again and again.”—Alana Abbott, School Library Journal (September 1, 2007)
“Filled with subtlety and grandeur, the book is a unique work that not only fulfills but also expands the potential of its form.”—Jesse Karp, Starred Review, Booklist (September 1, 2007)
“Stunning, powerful, gripping, moving-Tan’s book is meticulously wrought out and perfectly wrought, making use of both high-brow surrealism and extensive research into photographic records of immigrant stories.”—Joe Sutliff Sanders, VOYA (August 1, 2007)
“Wordlessly, through pages of beautifully crafted illustrations, Shaun Tan conveys the universal experiences of all those who leave their homes either by choice or from necessity. …A brilliantly imaginative and affecting graphic novel for all readers.”—Julia Eccleshare, Guardian UK (February 2, 2008)
This book is suitable for teaching the history of the American Immigrant Experience in any social studies class. I would use it with students in Grade 8 or higher, or with advanced middle school students, as rather sophisticated viewing skills are required for decoding Tan’s highly complex artistic images. Using the book would be a fantastic way to enhance student understanding of visual literacy.
Although Tan is Australian, the Artist’s Note in the back of the book refers to photographs taken at Ellis Island, New York, from 1892 to 1954. Some resources for teaching Ellis Island and the Immigrant Experience are available from The History Channel. The possibilities are endless, but go here as a starting point for ideas.
Ellis Island is a national park, and in addition to the possibility of leading students on a field trip to New York City, they offer extensive curriculum materials for all grade levels here.
Moving beyond the obvious, teachers could extend the historical discussion to the experience of modern day immigrants in America. A lesson plan incorporating primary sources from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection can be found here as a starting point.
Since Tan’s family migrated to Australia, it might be interesting to compare migratory routes of people groups in an overview of Human Geography. The Migration Heritage Center in New South Wales, Australia, is a great place get started.
Finally, this is a graphic novel, and wordless one at that. At some point, using graphic novels in the classroom requires that teachers enable students to discuss the book in terms of visual literacy. A lesson plan giving general guidelines for analyzing images as texts can be found here.
Tan, Shaun. (2006). The Arrival. Ill. by Shaun Tan. New York: Arthur A. Levine.