The Arrival by Shaun Tan tells many stories. The central story is about a man who leaves his family for a better life in a new world. The strangeness of the new world and the other people he meets there, who each have their own story to tell, make up the backbone of this enchanting book.
What makes The Arrival stand out is that it has no words. The story is told entirely through the use of pictures. The pictures are not of America but of a strange place, filled with unfamiliar creatures, architecture the ‘reader’ has never seen before, and people dressed in very odd clothing who do not behave in ways we’ve come to expect. This helps the ‘reader’ understand what it was like to take the great immigrant journey of the last century and what it must continue to be like for many people who make that journey today.
For example, when the hero arrives at his destination, strange bird like creatures fly over the boat he is on. They are not birds we have seen before, so we must figure them out, just like the hero does. How strange it is to see a flock of unfamiliar birds. He is confronted with a processing station that makes little sense to him and to us, since the signs are in a strange language and the people are dressed so weirdly. When it’s over, the hero is placed in a box, lifted up by a balloon and dropped into the middle of a city like no other. As we watch him try to make his way, we must also figure out how things work. Where do you go for food? What is food in this new place? How do you find a place to live? Where can you get work? The hero tries to answer these questions as do we.
The answer for our hero is always the same; some one who came before you will help you. Mr. Tan presents many stories, many ways that the people our hero meets ended up in this wondrous city. Some escaped war, some escaped slavery, but they all are more than willing to help the stranger who shares their experience of The Arrival. A lesson we all should remember, even if our families arrived many generations ago, as mine did.
So is this a book? What kind of book is it? You really do have to look at all of the pictures one at a time to ‘read’ it. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss something important. Because the new world is so strange you have to spend some time with each picture in order to figure things out. A second, I believe fair, question is who is the real audience? Is this a book for children or a book for parents and teachers? Is the medium too new for an older audience? Are the message and the pacing too old fashioned for young readers? I’m not going to say.
Maybe that will get you to read the book.
I first ran this review on my old blog back in 2008, shortly after it came out, I think. I still have my copy somewhere around the house. I only keep books I plan on reading again someday which says something about it. Looking at this review, I have to wonder if there really was any debate over whether or not this book constitute real reading. While I can still see that the question has some legitimacy, I really don’t care anymore. It’s a wonderful book. Everyone should have something by Shaun Tan on their shelf. He’s fantastic.