Module 13 — Graphic Novel

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Module 13 — Graphic Novel


Tan, S.  (2008).  Tales from outer suburbia.  New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.


This genre-bending work from artist Shaun Tan is creative in its content and in its use of literary and artistic forms.  The book’s tales, or short stories, are related through a common setting of suburban environments that look and feel both realistic and fantastic. Each story is told in both words and pictures, but the formats vary widely and the relationship between text and image is constantly changing, presenting challenges and rewards to the reader.  Although the stories involve bizarre situations, such as the visit of a foreign exchange student who is of indeterminate species and small enough to fit comfortably in a coffee cup, the settings, narration, and mundane nature of many of the conflicts place the reader in situations that seem simultaneously familiar and outlandish.

My Impressions

Tales from Outer Suburbia is creative in form and content and consistently entertaining and thought-provoking. Shaun Tan is a gifted artist and a talented writer who stretches boundaries and uses new books to try different variations in form and style. The stories are really thought-provoking and creative, both in the illustrations and text. The pictures alone are expressive enough to tell stories on their own, and, combined with the text (especially in the creative ways Tan has them interact).


Karp, J. (2008, Dec. 1). [Review of the book Tales from outer suburbia]. Booklist, 105, 50.

Gr. 7-12 /*Starred Review*/ After teaching the graphic format a thing or two about its own potential for elegance with The Arrival (2007), Tan follows up with this array of 15 extraordinary illustrated tales. But here is an achievement in diametric opposition to his silent masterpiece, as Tan combines spare words and weirdly dazzling images—in styles ranging from painting to doodles to collage—to create a unity that holds complexities of emotion seldom found in even the most mature works. The story of a water buffalo who sits in a vacant lot mysteriously pointing children “in the right direction” is whimsical but also ominous. The centerpiece, “Grandpa’s Story,” recalling a ceremonial marriage journey and the unnameable perils faced therein, captures a tone of aching melancholy and longing, but also, ultimately, a sense of deep, deep happiness. And the eerie “Stick Figures” is both a poignant and rather disturbing narrative that plays out in the washed-out daylight of suburban streets where curious, tortured creatures wait at the ends of pathways and behind bus stops. The thoughtful and engaged reader will take from these stories an experience as deep and profound as with anything he or she has ever read.

Davey, D. P. (2009, Mar. 1). [Review of the book Tales from outer suburbia]. School Library Journal, 55, 156.

/* Starred Review */ Gr 4 Up— For those who loved Tan’s surreal and evocative The Arrival (Scholastic, 2007), the Australian author follows up with a brilliant collection of illustrated vignettes. Fifteen short texts, each accompanied by Tan’s signature black-and-white and full-color artwork, take the mundane world and transform it into a place of magical wonders. In the opening tale, a water buffalo sits in an abandoned suburban lot, offering silent but wise direction to those youngsters who are patient enough to follow his guidance. In “Eric,” the title character (a tiny, leaflike creature) visits a family as a foreign exchange student and fascinates them with his sense of wonder. His parting gift to the family is sure to warm even the coldest heart. Other stories describe the fate of unread poetry, the presence of silent stick figures who roam the suburbs, or an expedition to the edge of a map. In spirit, these stories are something akin to the wit and wisdom of Shel Silverstein. The surrealist art of Rene Magritte also comes to mind, but perhaps Chris Van Allsburg’s beloved The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Houghton, 1984) comes closest as a comparable work. While somewhat hard to place due to the unusual nature of the piece, this book is a small treasure, or, rather, a collection of treasures.

Using in the Library

Tan uses many varieties of illustrations and page formats in this book. Have students choose three different pages or illustrations from the book and create a triple Venn diagram to show similarities and differences in format, style, color, type of text, themes, etc. Have students compare their Venn diagrams and display the pages while commenting on Tan’s various approaches.


About Boyd Waltman

Boyd Waltman is a film editor in Houston, Texas.
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