Revisiting this wordless and timeless graphic novel demonstrates to me just how powerful and impactful storytelling can be, regardless of the medium of the telling.

The Arrival was principally the first time many readers in the United States had been introduced to award-winning Australian illustrator and author Shaun Tan, and it took the continent by storm. It is still the first graphic novel assigned to my comic book students every session, not only because the book remains relevant over a decade since it was first published in 2006, but because many of my students are not (yet) confident comic book readers. This means that they usually rely on the text to read a graphic novel while basically skimming over the illustrations themselves. Not possible in this case!

Tan’s graphic novel, a story of immigration, begins with a young father leaving his family to seek a new life in a distant, and unrecognizable, country. His journey is filled with confusion and desperation as he is bombarded by strange customs, languages, and inanimate and animate objects at every turn. Eventually he finds a job, a place to live, friends and, at the conclusion of the book, is reunited with his family in the now not so foreign land. Along his way he encounters both established and supportive immigrants who share their motives and stories of immigration, seeking refuge from homelands overshadowed by horror and peril.

The hardcover book is the size of a typical picture book (9 x 12 inches), the cover appearing to be made of old, worn leather that resembles an old and treasured photo album. The end papers are a sea of illustrated faces that evoke photographs taken in the past. It is not until readers enter the book itself that they realize Tan has invited them into a world that is not instantly identifiable, but features photo-realistic human figures interacting in surreal settings. Readers must slow down and examine each of the sepia-toned illustrations and the use of panels and page layouts to gather the story being told while understanding that this is an intimate story that does not denote a specific person, time or place. The tale is effectively told through understated and delicate pencil work, subtle browns and mauves and superb shading, and panels that closely resemble film, with a variety of close and long shots, double page spreads, montages, lighting effects, and flashbacks. The graphic novel is, ironically, done without customary comic book elements such as motion lines, sound effects, and linguistic cues.

The Arrival has been retold as an opera in Australia and has received academic attention and acclaim with numerous articles discussing the symbolism and effectiveness of Tan’s vision.

The Arrival
by Shaun Tan
ISBN: 9780439895293
Arthur A. Levine, 2006
Publisher Age Rating: 12 +

  • Gail

    | She/Her Professor, Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta


    In addition to teaching at the School of Library and Information Studies (University of Alberta) where she is an adjunct professor, Gail tells stories and conducts workshops on a wide variety of topics across Canada and the United States. Each year she teaches the following courses for the University of Alberta. All of her courses are delivered online: Storytelling, Comic Books and Graphic Novels in School and Public Libraries, Canadian Children’s Literature for School and Public Libraries and Young Adult Literature. She also teaches a course on Indigenous Literature for the ATEP program (Aboriginal Teacher Education Program) at the University of Alberta. Gail is the award-winning author of nine books on storytelling and folklore in popular culture.

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