The Arrival by Shaun Tan

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The Arrival by Shaun Tan is the story of all immigrants. By relying solely on pencil illustrations, Shaun Tan attempts to capture the emotions and the story of not just one man leaving his family to enter a new world but the story of all immigrants entering a new life. I was not completely convinced that the immigrant story can be properly told via illustration, but The Arrival was intriguing nonetheless.

Tan’s illustrations in The Arrival are gorgeous and realistic, although as the immigrant man enters the new world, fantastic elements enter the pictures. Such fantastic elements were odd to me and confused me. I believe Tan intended to illustrate the foreignness of the new land. Tan further illustrated foreignness by never using letters: even in a sample newspaper, the characters are odd letter-like symbols, not our familiar ABCs. This was a clever technique because Tan demonstrated the confusion an immigrant might feel upon arrival in a new country where even the language is unknown.

The story of The Arrival was “tender.” The man left his wife and daughter and arrived in the new land, confused and lost. He relied on others to help him, others who had likewise arrived as immigrants a short time ago. After some time, his family is able to join him. They have become the experienced locals helping new arrivals find their way.

I enjoyed reading this, but I wonder about the role of all-illustrated books for children (grade 5-7) like The Arrival. While it is important to help our children appreciate art and learn to read and interpret art, wouldn’t it be better to encourage our children to be literate by actually reading a story of an immigrant or many immigrants? How does The Arrival help literacy?

I consider reading Winnie-the-Pooh aloud to my son reading. I consider listening to an audiobook reading. I consider reading a graphic novel reading. I consider reading The Arrival reading. But which of these media actually help our children become literate, and which should we promote most?

I would suggest that while reading The Arrival might help children understand the immigrant experience, reading it won’t actually help children embrace reading. However, I’m certainly not a teacher or a literacy expert. What do you think?

Reviewed on July 10, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Personally, I don’t think that this book is for children it definately needs an ‘adult’ way of thinking and also a different perspective. Shaun Tan has put many techniques into ths picture book to convey the feelings of isolation, belonging (and the desire to belong), the long process of integration and establishing a sense of familiarity, security and friends.

    For example, the 6×4 grid (on two pages) shows four different plants and each are shown their process if changing during a particular season. This simple grid shows the long process of integration. Honeslty, you are not going to feel like you belong in a completely new country in a month or two, no it can take years to establish a sense of belonging within the country.

    While the double page showing a huge dark cloud over the small ship conveys many thoughts and feelings. For example, the ship is portrayed small and placed in the corner. This highlights the insignificance the migrants would feel on the both, while the dark cloud mirrors that feeling whilst also making them appear insignificant. While the ‘light’ shadowing on the top left hand corner draws the audiences eyes to the ship so we notice them – they are not to be forgotten.

    What about the white birds that are shown multiple times throughout the book? They represent the desire to belong and the desire for freedom.

    While the tales of other families the migrant encounters include dark, cold and grey hues to convey a sense of fear in contrast to later images which have a warm, yellow hue to represent comfort and happiness.

    Literary does not also have to be words. English should be the way we understand what the texts are trying to convey to us. It is too narrow minded to think that english is just words. It is how we convey what the authors are trying to tell us. For example, Lord of The Flies, you might think that it is just about children being violent, when in reality the author is criticising the adult world and how violent it is. The little island the boys where stranded on is like a ‘minature’ adult world.

    Or Shakespeare’s Othello. It’s a drama/tradegy but it still is relevant today. It’s main focus is jealousy and how it can overcome all sense of rationality. Isn’t that what happens today?


  • Wow! Yeah, we’re studying The Arrival at school at the moment (yr12) and I agree that it’s most probably more suitable for older audiences. We’re doing it as a viewing text, and there is just so much in it! I really love it. It really makes you a part of the experience of coming to a new country with total foreign aspects (alphabet, transport) and takes you along with the man!

    I probably sound way to enthusiastic for a student, but I think this book has so much merit! Really worth studying! And the symbolism – thats a totally amazing thing!

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