The Arrival by Shaun Tan

arrival.jpgThis completely wordless tale seems surreal and mysterious and bizarre, but at its heart is a simple immigrant tale. It is a beautiful story of a man who must leave his wife and child when his homeland is overtaken by some mysterious creature–only its gigantic scary tails are seen in shadow. He carefully packs a photo of his family and undertakes the difficult journey to a New Word. Just like immigants to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he travels aboard a crowded ship. His arrival in the harbor of this new world mirrors immigrants’ arrivals to Ellis Island–he sees large statues in the harbor, tall buildings, a bustling world. Just like those who passed through Ellis Island he shuffles through long lines in an Arrivals hall where he is checked for physical and mental soundness before being issued documentation. It is no accident that these illustrations evoke these comparisons–the author’s note says that indeed he modeled these pictures after documents from Ellis Island. From there the man is sent to his lodging-a very small apartment. He must make friends, find work, support himself, learn the language, all before sending for his wife and child to join him. See? It sounds like the most basic (though certainly heartwarming) of stories. But what makes this so great is the fact that not only is it wordless, but it seems to be set in some fantastical land. The language of the people is made up of strange and bizarre symbols, the pets people have are strange little creatures, the food they eat looks like nothing the man has ever seen before, the devices people use are like weird contraptions from a Dr. Seuss story. It’s a beautifully drawn, amazingly intricate world. What is so neat about it is that while a reader now would think the things I just said, if you put yourself in the mind of someone who is arriving to any country not knowing the language, the customs, or the people, wouldn’t it all look fantastical and bizarre?? Mightn’t English look like the “strange and bizarre symbols” I mentioned? I think so. And that is why I think this is a lovely and thoughtful story, and a timeless one. I can’t conclude without putting in a plug for my very favorite immigrant story, a picture book for older readers: jessie.jpgWhen Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest, gorgeous illustrations by P.J. Lynch. It is a very beautiful story and I cry every time I read it. Really-go treat yourself to a lovely ten minutes by reading this book.

By the way, The Arrival was also listed on YALSA’s 2008 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. The complete list can be found here.

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