Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

When this title showed up at work, my coworker and I talked about whether it was a graphic novel or teen fiction. After thinking it over and looking around a bit, I decided to buck the trend and put it with graphic novels. Now that I’ve read this one, I still don’t know. Perhaps I’m more confused now!

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is a picture book for teens and adults (I don’t think it’s exclusively one or another, really!). More accurately, it’s a collection of short stories accompanied by detailed, fantastical art work. This is not my usual genre but I absolutely adored it.

This collection of short stories is bizarre yet familiar. As you read it, you are transported into an alternate reality that at the same time feels so normal or familiar. In the first story, a family’s international student decides to live in the kitchen cupboards during his stay and collects not the interesting and valuable pieces of the Australian culture, but instead the garbage and “throw away” pieces of life. At the end, he leaves his hosts a wonderful little surprise made with those assorted discards.

Another story — inspired by the cover pictured above — is about a deep sea diver in the old get up showing up in a family’s yard. Unsure what to do with this strange guests, the children deliver him to “Mrs. Bad News,” their neighbor who returns all of their lost toys to them broken. The images are beautiful and the story ends much differently than the children planned.

A couple other stories involve the discovery of hidden worlds within one’s own home and a story about what happens to the poems people write and never do anything with.

Each and every story is beautifully illustrated. This is a book that those who like fairy tales or fantasy, as well as short stories or graphic novels will love. It is part fiction and part graphic novel, as well as part book of art. Tan received a grant from his home country of Australia to complete it, and I think they were smart to let him develop such a unique book. This is a great one for an adult story time or for a family read. I am so eager to get my hands on Tan’s other book, The Arrival, because this one was just so darn good.

I think this is one of those books that proves literacy is so much more than the words on a page. Literacy is also visual, and without the visuals that Tan provides, this book wouldn’t be quite as fun. Although it’s a picture book, I don’t think this is the sort of book the younger crowd would “get” as well as teens and adults would simply because of the importance of the visuals to the stories and because of the sheer (wonderful) absurdity of some of the tales.

So, even if you’re not the traditional graphic novel aficionado, give this one a whirl. It might change your mind … or at least give you an appreciation for the fine art of balancing words and images to weave a set of fun and memorable stories.

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