The theme that unites Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia is to remain awake. With its miles of cement curbs, stop signs, and perfectly mown lawns, the suburbs can lull us into a kind of sleepwalk. We stop noticing the details, the people, the leaves changing, the smoke from a chimney, even the extraordinary water buffalo on the corner (featured in his opening story). And we don’t have to be living in the suburbs to lose our powers of observation. It can happen on city blocks or deep in rural territory.
A few weeks ago, when I interviewed Kate DiCamillo, she said that writing is about “being able to turn and look at everything you might not normally see.” And—these are my words now—good writers describe what they see in ways that are meaningful for someone else, that allow us as readers to enter the experience. Painters often say they paint what they feel more than what they see. But carefully chosen details allow us to stand where the writer or painter is standing and bring our own experience to the situation he or she is attempting to capture.
That’s what Shaun Tan does. He has the advantage of both tools: his text and his artwork. And he wields pen and paintbrush with equal power. He allows us to see the world from what we might normally think of as the constricted viewpoint of the leaf-like close-to-the-ground star of “Eric,” but instead we see a whole world open up in the beauty of a flower-shaped drain, and the surprise of a blossom that springs from bottle caps and peanut shells. Two boys have one opinion of a neighbor, then change it when they witness her transformation after a stranger shows up at her door. And perhaps most inspirational of all, he hints at the secret creative lives that dwell behind those closed suburban doors, and their discarded attempts at a poem gathering strength and letting loose a shower of “faded words pressed into accidental verse.”
“Every child is an artist,” Picasso said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Children live completely in the moment. They notice everything and want to name everything and learn all that they can learn about the things that interest them. I believe that’s what Picasso was talking about: how do we remain curious and interested and surprised? Tan, like Picasso, suggests that young people point the way. Our challenge is to encourage that impulse in young people as they move from childhood to adolescence, where they begin to explore adulthood and responsibility. And our challenge is to model that even as adults we continue to be open to the little changes and small details that make everyday experiences astonishing.