Without a single word, Shaun Tan's subtle and powerful pictures pull you in to the stories of refugees in a new land. As a menacing power roams their homeland, a father parts from his wife and child and travels across the sea. The new world he reaches is as incomprehensible to him and us as America must have been to those who landed at Ellis or Angel Island. And the clothes and sepia illustrations evoke that era of immigration. Despite his ignorance and mistakes, the man makes friends with other refugees and learns their stories of fear and hope, as he works toward the day when he can be reunited with his family.
Tan's vivid visual imagination is on full display in The Arrival. The wealth of detail rewards several re-readings. His people are pictured as very ordinary while the architecture, language, customs, and especially devices are wonderfully strange. Still, we can see ourselves in a place that welcomes strangers with a statue of friendship in the harbor. This is a book that a family can share that both children and adults will enjoy.
All of Shaun Tan's books have a similar feel of wonder and mystery, and most of them are parables about the human condition. Other picture book artists who also have a gift for portraying strangeness are Chris VanAllsburg and David Wiesner. Ellis Island's role in immigration is featured in A Fall of Marigolds for adults and The Orphan of Ellis Island for young readers. Nameless City is a graphic novel fantasy about coming to live in a strange place.
Review by Carolyn Caywood, retired from VBPL