Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Tales-From-Outer-Suburbia_ShaunTanBibliographic Info:
Tan, Shaun. 2009. Tales From Outer Suburbia. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 9780545055871.

Review:
Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia is a book sure to satisfy both graphic novel lovers and readers of short stories. Tan’s illustrations and his stories are whimsical and bizarre, eerie and beautiful. There are many influences here, but Library Journal puts it best: “Chris Van Allsburg meets The Outer Limits” (2009).

Fifteen different stories are presented with fantastic illustrations. Some illustations are in black and white while others are in the muted earth tones that Tan is known for, such as in his wordless book The Arrival. The book’s second story, “Eric”, is both a tale of a foreign exchange student. Or is it an alien visitor? The host family doesn’t quite know what to do with this tiny being who finds more interest and joy in candy wrappers, bottle caps, and the Fibonacci-like patterns present in everyday objects. The gift Eric leaves for his host family is both lovely and magical, yet also very odd.

The story “Undertow” features a dugong, a creature similar to a manatee, that mysteriously appears on someone’s front lawn. The couple who own the house seem to do nothing but fight, which temporarily stops when the neighborhood bands together to try and save the dugong. When the dugong is rescued, rather unremarkably, things appear to return to normal as the neighbors go back to their everyday lives and the couple returns to arguing. There is a poignant moment at the end. “Nobody saw the small boy clutching an encyclopedia of marine zoology leave the front door of that house, creep toward the dugong-shaped patch, and lie down in the middle of it, arms by his sides, looking at the clouds and stars, hoping it would be along time before his parents noticed that he wasn’t in his room and came out angry and yelling” (Tan 2009). The last two sentences, which I will omit here, are quiet and almost apologetically beautiful.

Tales From Outer Suburbia was a 2010 YALSA Best Book for Young Adults, a 2010 ALA Notable Book for Children, and a 2009 Publishers Weekly Best Book for Children, among others. Each story reads like a snippet in a stranger’s life, but perhaps a stranger that reminds you of yourself or someone you remember from long ago. There is no trace of didacticism, although many stories could easily go that way. Instead, Tan leaves imagery, in both his illustrations and his words, to speak how they will to the reader. This book would work particularly well in a writing group of tweens or teens. Before reading any of the stories, have group members write a poem or story based on a single illustration from the book. Afterward, read the original, accompanying story aloud to the group and discuss how experiences and emotions can change interpretation.

References:
Benedetti, Angelina. June 2009. Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|20183934|21534168&mc=USA#. Accessed December 2, 2013.

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Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

ShipBreakerBibliographic Info:
Bacigalup, Paolo. 2010. Ship Breaker. New York: Little Brown. ISBN 9780316056212.

Review:
Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel Ship Breaker begins like a punch to the face. Nailer, our teenage protagonist who doesn’t know exactly how old he is, lives somewhere off the Gulf Coast of America in a future version of our world. The future is bleak. Oceans have risen, natural resources like oil and gas have been virtually depleted, and ship breakers like Nailer spend their days working to break down abandoned ships for parts that can be sold and recycled. The work is grueling and dangerous. Within the first few chapters, Nailer nearly dies in a scene that is sure to make the skin crawl on readers who are claustrophobic.

Several chapters into the novel, Nailer and his friend Pima find a wrecked clipper ship that is full of goods worth more money than they can even imagine, they make big plans to sell their scavenge and live a better life. When they discover the body of a rich, young girl on the ship, Pima and Nailer argue about leaving her or, when they find out she is still alive, brokering a deal so that they all benefit. What ensues is a nail-biting race to avert the many dangers of this dystopian world and to find a way to live a better life.

Bacigalupi addresses issues of pollution, class differences, genetic engineering, slavery, child labor, greed, family, and religion. The world he constructs is both brutal and exquisitely beautiful in its detail. The characters are fully formed and easy to both love and hate. Surprising for myself was how, by the end of the novel, I had grown to enjoy the character of the half-man, Tool, who is initially introduced as blood-thirsty and incredibly frightening. Richard Lopez, Nailer’s father, is terrifying in his abject cruelty, his drug and alcohol addiction, and his absolute disregard for his son. In one scene in chapter five, Nailer barely escapes a violent confrontation with his father and, despite the many times his father has beaten him, he still has hope. “Nailer curled in on himself, glad to feel safe for the night. Tomorrow might be different, but this day had ended well. Tomorrow would handle itself” (Bacigaulpi 2009, 60).

There are many gorey and violent scenes in Ship Breaker, but none feel gratuitous. It is a horrifying world in which Nailer lives, but he still manages to find moments of compassion, of honesty, and of love. “At its core, the novel is an exploration of Nailer’s discovery of the nature of the world around him and his ability to transcend that world’s expectations” (Publishers Weekly 2010). Ship Breaker won the 2011 Printz Award and was nominated for a National Book Award in 2010. This is a novel for older or mature teens, but is also a fantastic springboard for discussion. Ask teen readers to compare aspects of Nailer’s world with present day. Compare Bright Sands beach, where the ship breakers live, to the modern day beach slums in Cambodia or Haiti. Don’t hesitate to share photographs. This is sure to be an eye-opening discussion for all involved.

References:
Publishers Weekly. April 2010. Publishers Weekly.com. http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-316-05621-2. Accessed December 2, 2013.