#AtoZchallenge: “T” is for Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008) by Shaun Tan

Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?”


Children’s books can tell you a lot about the world. They can be wise and refreshing.

Sometimes they can be confusing. And that’s ok.

A book that features a depth of wisdom and insight I find absolutely fantastic is the graphic novel by Shaun Tan, Tales from Outer Suburbia. Though intended for an older audience within the child and young adult readership, it represents a brilliant example of how a work of children’s literature illuminates wisdom and meaning, but can also confuse readers and generate quite a bit of head scratching!

The text is divided up into fifteen illustrated stories set in the suburbs of Australia, and Tan’s detailed drawings pull the reader into a deep, haunting, and profound reading experience.

Let me share with you one of the stories:

“Stick Figures” can seem a little creepy on first encounter, but I think this story illustrated in muted colors hides an important truth (and just the one that I discovered–there may be a handful of others that different readers recognize). The tale centers on the existences of “stick figures” comprised of just that—sticks and a “faceless clod of earth.” People have been living with them “since before anyone remembers” but their purpose is unknown. They wander the suburbs, sometimes enduring abuse at the hands of young adults who hit them repeatedly, as if trying to discover, “What are they? Why are they here? What do they want? Whack! Whack! Whack!” Even after breaking from such abuse, the figures reappear, and Tan ends his short tale by pointing out that no one can figure out the reason for their existence, “but if you stop and stare at them for a long time, you can imagine that they too might be searching for answers, for some kind of meaning. It’s as if they take all our questions and offer them straight back: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want?”

The conclusion to this story really packs a punch, in my estimation. These three questions are strongly spiritual in nature, and speak to very large, serious ponderings about life. Who exactly am I? What am I doing here? What do I want in this life? Perhaps Tan is creating these “stick figures” to represent an aspect of our existence that is present, yet not always understood or noticed. It’s like the stick figures represent an aspect of ourselves.

As humans, deep down, I think we do want to know who we are, why we are here, and what we want. The stick figures, in their strangeness, force us to consider those deep questions. Even if we completely shatter the figures, thinking we have obliterated the silence in which we reflect on the nature of our existence, the “stick figures” are recreated and waiting for us the following morning. Tan has crafted a brilliant fable.

Have you read Tales from Outer Suburbia? How about other books by Shaun Tan? What did you think?


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