The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. Teaching Children and Adults About Immigration.

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Shaun Tan is one of the most talented artists when it comes to children’s literature, and this is not merely my opinion. Winner of the most prestigious children’s literature prize, The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Tan manages to reach out to both children and adults by bringing up contemporary and important themes wrapped in a beautiful world of fantasy. The Arrival is a wordless book, winner of many prizes such as New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, Children’s Book Council of Australia, Western Australian Premier’s Book Award, and many others.

I am not here to list Shaun Tan’s accomplishments, but to explain how I believe The Arrival can be enjoyed by both adults and children, and used as base material for explaining important social issues.

The Arrival is a picture book containing no words. When I say ´´no words´´ I do mean it, so except the title you won’t stumble upon any other written language you can decode. This is smart for three reasons: firstly, little readers won’t have to know how to read about subjects that often have to be explained in ´´big words´´ and ´´complicated phrases´´; secondly, the readers will have to decode the illustration’s meanings themselves by looking at the pictures and letting their minds work (which is a great creative start); thirdly, the adult and the child can have much more fun making up names for the characters and places, or narrating the action themselves, which is a much more interactive way of storytelling than the classic adult reads- child listens approach.

page 1
Sometimes the closest thing you have to family is a picture. And it’s a precious thing.

Of course, what really makes The Arrival interesting is, except the fact that is wordless, the content. In The Arrival, Tan tells the story of a family where the father migrates in a faraway land, leaving his wife and little daughter behind. Once there, he tries to cope with all the new things surrounding him, struggles to find a job, makes new friends, and in the end manages to bring his family to the new city. This is an unusual story for a children’s book. However, it’s the story of many families; a story that, as you read this now, represents their present and only reality. Furthermore, I believe this is one of the best books one can buy for a child that lives in today’s world.

Think about it: your child lives in a world where they hear about subjects like immigration all the time. However, it doesn’t mean a thing to them because nobody explains the fact that behind the word immigrants there are real people with real stories. And how would you explain that? I wouldn’t know where to start. But I sure would consider it, since it’s more than likely that the child will have colleagues at school or friends who have an immigrant background. It’s something that they will surely stumble upon in the future, and it’s important that the parents choose a good approach in explaining it. This can make the difference between your child making a friend and growing up as a good person or becoming a bully.  The Arrival can be good helping material for this. Here are some elements that I believe parents could use:

page 2•The city the man leaves is represented in the book as a scary, filled with monsters place. The monsters, of course, can represent many things: fear (of his daughter not having a good future, of not having the liberty to do or say what he wants, of bad health, etc.), bad people in charge of the city (corrupt leaders, bad regimes, etc.), or actual monsters. The pick is yours. You can choose to let your child tell the story and then perhaps they will be real monsters, or explain what you think they are. I interpreted the monsters to be all the fears and frustrations that can obliterate someone’s desires and aspirations until all there is left is fear and the strong will to go somewhere better.

Left: inspection room, Ellis Island. (© Detroit Publishing Co.)
Right: inspection room in The Arrival world.

•The place where the man arrives is not named in the book but I believe it to be based on New York City. I am saying this not only because NY is a very popular place to start a new life, but also because I find that the illustration is similar to Ellis Island’s immigration station. While children will most certainly not be able to decode this, you can bring it up here, especially if you happen to be from NY, living in NY, know people who immigrated there, or are one yourself. It could lead to a nice discussion about your family history.

The New City.

•The world of The Arrival doesn’t have a name, and it’s obviously a fantasy one. It is similar to ours, but different enough to look exotic and alien. Perhaps you have lived this on our own when traveling to a country where you don’t know the language and the customs. Culture clash is something that can be explained successfully to children using this book. The man can’t communicate and everything around him seems alien. Why is that? How would that make you feel? Perhaps like a reader who can only ´´read´´ the book through images? Maybe.

Simple things like having pets, running water, or traffic lights can seem very strange to people who are not used to it. It’s not because those people are not intelligent, it’s just because it’s something new and they need someone to help them understand. This idea is at the very core of The Arrival book and can help many children to better understand the issue at hand and be more considerate to others.

•Except immigration, there are two other themes that I want to mention here. One is child labor. The man in the book meets a lady who tells him her story: as a child, the girl was not allowed to read and instead was forced to work. She escaped, not before stealing her book back. This was one of the main book’s elements that gave me the idea that this book can be just golden in explaining to children issues that are otherwise so difficult to understand, even by the grown-ups. This can lead to a very good discussion with your child about why education is so important, and why other people have to fight for it.


The other theme is war. A family tells the story of how their city was attacked by big, unreal creatures. They pay someone to help them escape their devastated city. Like in real life, many immigrants do not arrive safely and legally. Some are asylum seekers, people whose countries have been devastated by war and famine and whose only option was to run from terror, not walk away from fear. Monsters are, at the end of the day, different for everyone.

The Arrival can be as fantasy as you make it. You may choose to explain the themes in the book to your child, or leave them be in the realm of fairy tales. In any case, it is a good book to be read by adults as well. The illustrations are not childish, and can really make you think deeply about their subjects and today’s society. Poverty, social status, war, are also themes you may encounter and understand much better as an adult.

The book is categorized under graphic novels, picture books, or children’s literature. Most likely you will find it under the children’s literature. However, I believe it should be targeting an adult audience as well.  Do pick it up and enjoy one of the most intelligently made books. Ultimately, it is about belonging and the process of achieving that. And at some point in time, we all wanted to belong somewhere with someone.



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