An Off-Format Book of Pictures


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?

the-arrival1Shaun 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

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.


Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler is the author-illustrator of MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS (Penguin), which debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list. She also illustrated Holly Black’s Newbery Honor winning novel DOLL BONES (Simon & Schuster), Pat Zietlow Miller’s picture book WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), Mara Rockliff’s picture book THE GRUDGE KEEPER (Peachtree), and Tricia Springstubb's new middle grade series CODY (Candlewick). Eliza received the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 SCBWI National Conference. Eliza is a northern Wisconsin native currently living with her husband in Los Angeles, California. See her work at


  1. This book is freakin’ beautiful! You’re right. The publisher HAD to take a chance on this one. What a wonderful picture story for everyone…all ages to enjoy.

  2. Thanks Eliza! What a great post.

  3. Thanks! I shared this with a friend who is writing a novel for children about an immigrant.

  4. Such a beauty, Eliza.
    And your ** is so right. 😉

  5. My daughter LOVES this book! She’s an aspiring artist, now 13, but it holds a special place in her heart. I love it too, and the sepia tones give it that nostalgic and universal feeling. How different it would have been in black & white. I also love the surreal elements of the visual story. Thanks, Eliza! 🙂

  6. Let’s hear it for “foresight, faith and gumption” — and “freakin’ beautiful” books. Gorgeous!

  7. TOTALLY intrigued! Gotta get a look! Thanks.

  8. This remains one of my all time favorite picture books/ graphic novels. Everything you said about it is spot on. It continues to inspire me on a daily basis. Thanks for the insights about its audience, its timelessness, and its hard to classify-ness.

  9. Great post! We have Rules of Summer but I will look for this one.

  10. So grateful for the courage of an authors and editors whose hearts recognize, and take risks on, beauty.

  11. It took a lot of courage for you and Arthur Levine to bring this beautiful book to life. Many thanks to you both!

  12. Really lovely… And amen to this – “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.” Hopefully someday I will!! 😀

  13. This is the most beautiful book. I loved it so much I gave my copy away to someone I knew would love it as much as I did. Now, with this reminder, I will buy another copy. Thanks Eliza.
    Also, I was boosted by this; “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.” Okay, I will.

  14. I live by a policy of passing it forward. I will buy a book and then I will pass it forward to someone who I feel will enjoy, but can’t afford or just hasn’t seen or heard of the book I have read. This one is proving very difficult to let go. Thanks for putting me on to it.

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