Module 13: Tales from Outer Suburbia

“We only have to wash and wax our missile on the first Sunday of every month…”

Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan, is the most unique children’s book I have ever read since my beloved “Fungus and the Bogeyman”(1977, London). That both books are not from the United States might contribute to the fascinating unfamiliarity and otherworldliness. Tan’s award winning book, comprised of fifteen vignettes, plays with the concept of suburbia – where things and people may seem similar or even identical until something happens or is revealed showing the humanity and uniqueness that is inherent in people and their locations.

In ‘Eric’, we see the story of the foreign exchange student who never seems to fit in, spending most of him time collecting small objects and staying alone in the pantry. Only after his sudden departure does the family see the breathtaking gift he has been working on for them, which could only have come from a place of love and thankfulness. ‘Broken Toys’ has the typical grumpy neighbor who returns any toys ending up on her ‘side’ broken and unusable. A childish prank ends up somehow connecting all the missing pieces in the neighbors life, and toys are now returned intact. “Grandpa’s Story’ at first glance seems to be yet another tale of how marriages used to be – sacrifice, unbreakable, etc. etc., this story is then woven into a post apocalyptic landscape complete with an unsolvable logic game. ‘No Other Country’ gives tract home owners their own unique space to enjoy inside their own homes- set apart from the identical floor plans and building materials of their development – but is only found by some. A darker tale is “Stick Figures”, in which peaceful and placid characters are beat with baseball bats, golf clubs and the victim’s own snapped off limbs by teenage boys in the neighborhood. My favorite was ‘Alert but not Alarmed’, in a town where every household has to store an intercontinental ballistic missile for possible war use, but everyone decides instead to decorate the missiles cheerfully and use them instead for garden tool storage, treehouses or barbques.

Reading this book is a very surreal experience. One has to suspend all perceptions of reality in order to understand and enjoy the stories, which don’t make sense in any linear fashion. Some of the themes seemed very adult, but I think that children reading the book would not be frustrated by this, but would rely more on the pictures or their own imagination to fill in the blanks. This author certainly has and unconventional way of looking at life, one that is poetic and out of the box. For this reason, I would recommend this book to be read in a story time for children ages 4-7, or to be used in a book group for middle schoolers with an interest in graphic novels.

Shaun Tan, Author

Tan, Shaun Tales from outer suburbia (2008) New York, Scholastic Inc.

Review One

Shaun Tan wowed readers young and old with his magnificent sepia-toned wordless graphic novel, THE ARRIVAL, about a young man’s journey to a bizarre new world to start a life for his family.The New York Times called it the “Best Illustrated Book of 2007.” It also made Publishers Weekly’s, School Library Journal’s andHorn Book’s “Best Book” lists for the year. It should be of no surprise, therefore, that his latest collection of short stories and artful collages, titled TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, carries much of the same weight and majesty as its predecessor.

The 15 skillfully constructed pieces in TALES are truly breathtaking to experience, each in its own way. All are accompanied by whimsical illustrations (some done in pen and ink, some presumably in watercolors/acrylic/oil paint, others in what looks like words or images drawn on torn pieces of paper and pasted on top of a painted background) that do much more than provide a simple backdrop for the story being told. In fact, many of these works of art tell powerful stories of their own.

In “eric,” a foreign exchange student (drawn as a waify black cat-like figure) is awed by the trinkets and cultural oddities he picks up off the ground during his stay. As a parting gift to his host family, he leaves behind his stash (shown on the last spread in black and white sketchings, peppered by splashes of radiant color) and, therefore, a window into what it must have felt like for him to spend time with them in an unknown environment.

In the wonderfully tender “grandpa’s story,” a crumbly and loveable grandfather shares the story of his wedding day with his rapt grandkids. As only the best grandparents can do, he weaves an enthralling tale of their journey “past all the factories and landfills” and “beyond on the signs and roads” as they embark on a wild Scavenger Hunt to find a list of objects required for their wedding. The stunning illustrations show them being attacked by angry unplugged TVs, riotous tree roots, hordes of wind-up penguins and other fanciful villains. Of course, the two lovebirds overcome their obstacles against all odds, and the ending is so knowingly touching, it just might bring tears to your eyes.

As seen in many of his previous works, Tan takes to soapboxing in some of these pieces — but always in a digestible and unimposing way. “The Amnesia Machine” (laid out in a newspaper-clipping format) takes on subliminal advertisements, corrupt governments, rising unemployment and the environmental crisis in a delightfully chuckle-worthy tone one might find in The Onion. “alert but not alarmed” imagines a Ray Bradbury-esque world where nuclear “backyard missiles” are used as flower pots, dog kennels and pizza ovens instead of weapons of war. “stick figures” and “no other country” riff on what it means to be a “stranger in a strange land” while also extolling the often unseen advantages to one’s home environment.

All in all, there isn’t a vignette in this book that dips below expectations — it’s a solid, heavy-hitting package through and through. It’s worth repeating that Tan has a gift for expressing the inexpressible and highlighting those universally poignant moments that life surprises us with from time to time, through his careful coupling of words and art — a balance many authors or illustrators might find difficult to replicate. It also goes without saying that while this collection is slated for a young adult audience, it’s strongly recommended for adults as well. With all the fluff and vapid picture books on the market these days, Tan’s rare talent and sophisticated offerings are a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Burling, Alexis. (2009, February 1). Kids Reads [Review of the book Tales from Outer Suburbia]. Retrieved from

Review Two

The proper way to salute the genius of Shaun Tan would be to draw a picture, or really three pictures. The first image would be of bursting fireworks, for the awe his illustrations inspire. You don’t have to look past the cover of “Tales From Outer Suburbia,” which shows a figure in one of those old-time deep-sea-diving helmets standing on an otherwise ordinary street, to know what I mean. You almost can’t stop yourself from saying, “Wow.” Or at least I couldn’t.

The second image would be a sorcerer’s hat, to represent the otherworldly magic that Tan sprinkles liberally into his work. He knows just how to drop the extraordinary into the ordinary, creating his own mystical, serendipitous universe.

Finally, there would be a handkerchief, to represent the surprisingly powerful melancholy and longing that both his stories and his pictures evoke.

And all these pictures, like Tan’s, would combine unerring detail, abundant visual wit and a placid impressionism conveying the feeling of memory.

A 35-year-old writer and illustrator from Australia, Tan has received many awards for his work, including, I learned from Wikipedia, one from the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future contest. His work is weird, all right, but the best kind of weird — the kind that welcomes you in.

“Tales From Outer Suburbia” is a collection of illustrated stories about, among other things, a water buffalo who hangs out in a vacant lot and gives directions to local kids; stick figures who get beaten up by neighborhood bullies; a giant du­gong that appears on someone’s lawn; and the lonely fate of all the unread poetry that people write — it joins a vast “river of waste that flows out of suburbia.” This last story, by the way, is presented as a flotilla of random scraps that “through a strange force of attraction” come together, the word “naturally” meeting the phrase “many poems are” and then “immediately destroyed.”

For all his talents as an illustrator, Tan also writes extremely well. Each story is an exercise in narrative concision — the characters are vivid and original, the plots blend logic and whimsy, and the endings always pay off, if never quite the way you expect. My favorite, “Our Expedition,” is about a pair of brothers who disagree over what lies beyond the edge of a map their father keeps in his car. One boy is convinced that the world simply ends, as the map implies, while the other insists that this would be impossible. They make a bet and head out on a long trek to see for themselves. It is a wonderful extrapolation of a youthful argument, and it resolves with a stunning, surrealistic illustration across two pages.

Tan’s earlier book “The Arrival” (2007) contained no words at all: It begins with a father leaving his family to seek opportunities in a strange land, which Tan peppers with funky nonhuman creatures, bizarre urban dwellings and food that looks like nothing you’ve ever seen or considered eating. These flourishes of absurdity give the reader a direct experience of the extreme culture shock experienced by the immigrant, of how deeply unsettling a new world must be. In that sense, “The Arrival” feels much truer than a dutifully realistic account could. Which might explain why, at the end, I actually cried. Not a lot, not like a baby. But more than I expected a wordless picture book filled with sci-fi-like critters could ever make me.

Tan’s work overflows with human warmth and childlike wonder. But it also makes a perfect adult bedtime story, a little something to shake loose your imagination from the moors of reality right before your own dreams kick in.

Lindgren, Hugo.  New York Times Book Review [Review of the book Tales From Outer Suburbia]. The New York Times. Retrieved from



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