The book that I felt inspired to write about isn’t exactly considered a picture-book — yet it’s a story told entirely in pictures, so what book could warrant the title more?
Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’, is the story of a man who leaves his family and country in search of a better life for them in a new city. We follow him as he says good-bye to his wife and daughter, journeys across the ocean, arrives in a strange new city, looks for a home, gets work, meets others like him and learns of their stories. How does one communicate so much in a book of all pictures and no words?
(All images copyright Shaun Tan, visit Shauntan.net)
The story is laid out over 128 pages, with hundreds of half-page, full-spread, and panel drawings, created in graphite. The images feel photographic and familiar, yet are paired with locations and creatures of another realm. This mash-up of history meets fantasy creates an immersing experience for the reader– one that conveys in a truly emotional way what it must be like to land in a foreign country and build a new life from scratch.
I’ve been into many bookstores and noted this book placed in different sections; with picture books, middle-grade, young adult, and graphic novels — it sort of belongs no-where, yet at the same time could fit anywhere. While the format is out-of-the-box, the theme of immigration is universal and timeless.
It was this feeling of timelessness that caused Arthur Levine to take a chance on the book and publish it in 2007. I heard him speak at an SCBWI conference, and he said of the project, “It was 128 full-color pages, wordless, had an adult male for its main character, an author that was (at the time) mostly unknown in the States . . . it had no selling points for it whatsoever. But it was a book that I couldn’t pass up. I just knew it was timeless.”
One could only hope to find a publisher who understands the vision of one’s book this fully, enough to be willing to take a risk. It takes fore-sight, faith, and gumption. For instance, Arthur Levine could have cut costs in a big way by printing the whole thing in black and white, but he understood that the subtle shades of sepia, brown, black, yellow, cream, and gray lend to an important sense of the past, and the look of ephemera. The risk paid off in a huge way and the book won a slew of much-deserved awards.
My advice to an author or illustrator wanting to create a book that transcends an already well-defined format? Find a story that’s ageless, timeless, and tell it in such a freakin’ beautiful way that an editor can’t help but say yes to publishing it.**
**I am aware that’s way easier said than done.