Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tan, Shaun. Tales from Outer Suburbia (4 stars out of 4)--
About two years ago, my friend Jay gave me the album (Come on Feel the) Illinoise by quirky singer/songwriter/musician Sufjan Stevens. I asked Jay who Stevens sounded like, but he coyly said that no one sounded like this guy. Come now, I exhorted, he must sound like somebody: Jackson Browne, Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, Bruce Springsteen, Dusty Springfield, Ozzy Osbourne, Nico, Tracy Chapman, Seal, Dan Bern, Peter, Paul, or Mary, somebody! No, he insisted, Stevens is an original. My friend was right: Stevens’ eclectic, infectious, whimsical blend of Indian, Middle Eastern, alt-country, folk, bluegrass, and R & B defies description; it must be listened to in order to be appreciated. The same refreshing originality is abundant in Shaun Tan’s new graphic short story collection Tales from Outer Suburbia: it must be viewed and read to be appreciated. After his brilliant The Arrival, a fully graphic (a la David Wiesner), post-modern novel that belongs in every public and school library in America, Mr. Tan has returned with both words and images, and they blend so seamlessly that after the first sitting, it is hard to imagine that some books have no pictures at all. Mr. Tan has triumphed again, establishing himself as a unique voice in YA literature.
The illustrated stories in Tales from Outer Suburbia are at once engaging and poignant. In “The Water Buffalo,” many years ago a neighborhood water buffalo gave advice to those who asked: “Then he would come up to us slowly, raise his left hoof, and literally point us in the right direction. But he never said what he was pointing at, or how far we had to go, or what we were supposed to do once we got there” (6). I can imagine a fifth-grader in my Intermediate School listening for the first time to my booming voice describing how to navigate the library and seeing that water buffalo pointing towards media literacy without adequate preparation. In “No Other Country,” Mr. Tan demonstrates how a “staycation” can be more fun than a traditional vacation. Tenants in a seemingly bleary neighborhood discover a mysterious door in their homes that leads to a pacific, pastoral paradise they name “the inner courtyard:" “It was actually more like an old palace garden . . . There were ancient walls decorated with frescoes; the more they looked at them, the more the family recognized aspects of their own lives within these strange, faded allegories” (60). The haunting “Stick Figures” chronicles the exploits of suburbia’s many stick figure people, endangered by bullies who can sometimes beat them for hours: “But eventually it stops being amusing. It becomes boring, somehow enraging, the way they just stand there and take it. What are they? Why are they here? What do they want?” (67). Stick people are resilient, however, and the reader is left with the impression that, like cockroaches, stick people were here before us and will still be here even when we are gone. One of the most striking single pictures is at the conclusion of “Alert, but Not Alarmed,” a cleverly conceived anti-war snapshot in which “every household has its own intercontinental ballistic missile” (76), but Mr. Tan’s art is at once eclectic, unforgettable, and strikingly original.
On a primal level, Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is an emotionally stirring book. While reading, I found myself alternately laughing and crying without quite knowing why. I heartily recommend Tales as a must for every middler and high school library. However, the best endorsement I can offer came from one of my 6th grade twin sons; after reading aloud “The Water Buffalo,” I asked what he thought of it. “Yeah, hmmm, thought provoking,” he said, with a faraway gleam in his eye, as I could almost hear his brain’s gears whirring and clicking.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home