The Arrival by Shaun Tan (first published by Lothian Children’s Books, Australia, 2006)
Introduced by Clare Walters
The Arrival is really more of a graphic novel than a wordless picture book, but it earns its place in #NoWords as it is now published by Hodder as a children’s title. Not only is this book a longer, more sustained read that requires considerable commitment from the reader, but it also depicts a more serious subject: that of the practical and emotional experience of being a migrant.
The cover of the large-format hardback is striking. It appears scratched and distressed, like an old leather-bound tome, and the debossed central image gleams with spot varnish. There is a similar spot-varnished picture on the back cover, and even the small barcode panel resembles an old peeling sticker. These telling details are indicative of the enormous care that has been taken over every physical aspect of the book, from its poignant endpapers of 60 passport-style portraits to its silky ribbon marker.
Inside, the fiction of this being an old book is continued. The prelim pages appear foxed and watermarked, and the cataloguing information is shown in several small boxes that also appear to be yellowing stickers. At first glance, with their sepia tones, the opening drawings of a man packing a battered suitcase with the help of his wife and child are reminiscent of faded photographs, and call to mind images of early 20th century immigration into the USA. But as the story progresses an increasing number of surreal elements are introduced into the pictures, and the reader soon realises this is no recognisable human world.
In fact the man is arriving in an invented fantasy city, beautifully realised through Tan’s strange and exquisitely drawn pencil-on-paper images. This defamiliarisation, or disruption to one’s initial perceptions, requires the reader to undergo a mutual learning process with the fictional migrant. The detailed storyline, covering years rather than days and including long digressions into other characters’ stories, shows the protagonist going through many of the typical migrant stages. There’s the long sea journey, the tedious and humiliating experience of immigration control, the challenge of decoding a foreign language, the struggle of finding somewhere to live, and the practicalities of learning your way around a new city. Gradually though, the reader sees the man landing a job and beginning to forge a new life for himself, including meeting a quirky pet and making a few friends. Eventually he is secure enough to bring over his wife and daughter – and a happy family life becomes possible once more.
This is a deeply engaging, emotionally complex work that includes mysterious visual metaphors and delicate poetic elements, such as an origami bird that links the protagonist to his homeland and family. It is a magnificent book, lingering in the heart long after the pages are closed and repaying multiple re-readings.
Clare Walters is a journalist and writer of children’s picture books and she has a large collection of wordless picture books.