Review: Tales from Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. 2009. Borrowed copy. All ages.

It’s About: Illustrated short stories, set in the familiar world of the suburbs. Only, not so much.

The Good: Each of these short stories takes place in the suburbs, but for each there is something just a little — off. Not quite typical. The suburbs, but looking at it sideways, out of the corner of your eye, thinking both “that is strange” and “no, it’s not” at the same time.

First is the water buffalo, with the unnamed narrator telling the reader, “when I was a kid, there was a water buffalo living in the vacant lot at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed.” One would almost think, “oh, the children are imagining it!”

As future stories slowly include more fantastical elements, one thinks back and realizes — there really WAS a water buffalo in the lot! Together, these stories create a world that offers the reader both something magical and something mundane, because over and over people take things in stride.

In Eric, the story is about a foreign exchange student. The text seems perhaps a bit quirky: “We had repainted the spare room, bought new rugs and furniture, and generally made sure everything would be comfortable for him. So I can’t say why it was that Eric chose to sleep and study most of the time in our kitchen pantry.” The illustrations show that Eric is a small, odd person that looks like a leaf with legs. No matter what happens or what Eric does, Mum just says “it must be a cultural thing.” Calmly, accepting.

My favorite may be grandpa’s story, where grandpa explains just what he means when he says “of course, weddings were more complicated in those days, not the short ‘n’ sweet kind you see today.” The “more complicated” is, if anything, an understatement with the pictures adding even more layers of complications.

The nameless holiday (about, well, a nameless holiday that “happens once a year, usually around late August, sometimes October“) has this powerful language: “He always knows exactly which objects are so loved that their loss will be felt like the snapping of a cord to the heart, and it’s only these that he nudges tenderly until they become hooked onto his great antlers. . . . What a remarkable, unnameable feeling it is, right at the moment of his leaping: something like sadness and regret, of suddenly wanting your gift back and held tight to your chest, knowing that you will certainly never see it again. And then there is the letting go as your muscles release, your lungs exhale, and the backwash of longing leaves this one image on the shore of memory: a huge reindeer on your roof, bowing down.”

Some of the stories are humorous; some tragic; some with a clear message; others, entertaining. The slightly tilted world may be about people, holidays, customs, or a place. Each, in its own way, is haunting. Is this my suburbia, and I just haven’t noticed? Or have I just thought something like “it must be a cultural thing“?


4 thoughts on “Review: Tales from Outer Suburbia

  1. I love this book so much. It’s so hard to define exactly what it is to people, or who the audience might be, but that may be part of what makes it so special. I think “illustrated prose poetry” is a pretty good description.


  2. Sondy & rockinlibrarian, this was definately one of the tougher to review books. I always find short story collections a bit hard to review because of having to select which stories to talk about. And here, with the thread that does run through the stories, and each one is unique. And who is the audience? I love that there are books like this for the kids/teens/grownups who want that something different from a book.


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