Shaun Tan’s book, The Arrival, completely overwhelmed me. Despite not containing a single decipherable word, the story is complex and layered; so much so that I immediately re-read it in order to make sense of things.
Using only pictures, Tan tells the story of a man who leaves his home and family in order to go to a new land. Once there he finds a place to live, looks for work and meets other people who have come from elsewhere. The story is set in a fantastical world so that readers cannot easily identify the setting and are therefore placed in the position of newcomers themselves.
Even without words, I believe The Arrival would have great value in a classroom unit on immigration, ideally in a situation where you can display the pictures for all to see. Since it is without words, this book will do a great job of forcing your students to make connections and inferences in order to understand. You can also take on questions of author’s (or illustrator’s) purpose. And although Tan’s book certainly does not require words, it may provide a starting off point for a writing exercise for your students.
Here’s my own mini discussion guide – a list of questions to help guide you:
1. What is this story about?
2. You meet several immigrants in this story, why did they leave their home countries?
3. Where might they come from?
Although the worlds are fantasy, I think links can be seen to real countries.
4. What were things like for the man in his new world?
Think about the writing, the new foods and animals, the search for work.
5. Why do you think Shaun Tan chose not to use words?
6. Why do you think all the writing is a made up language?
7. Why do you think he used a fantasy world instead of familiar places?
8. How do you know when you’re switching stories?
Even though this is a picture book, I would recommend it for grades 3 and up. The story is so complex that little ones may have difficulty understanding even if they do see beauty in the artwork. There is also one very dark painting that shows piles of skeletons and the following pane shows a man who has lost his leg (it is bandaged and covered but still may bother some).
Sex, Nudity, Dating – None.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – One immigrant’s story is clearly one of war and is accompanied by a full page illustration of skeletons stacked on top of each other (you can make out the hats of the soldiers in the darkness, soldiers who were marching in a parade on the prior page). The following page shows a man who is clearly injured, has an amputation at the knee and is bandaged up. We are only shown the bandages and crutches.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – None.
Frightening or Intense Things – As with many stories about immigration there are some darker themes. Some people faced intimidation, war and something that appears to be akin to slavery.