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The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The Arrival
y Shaun Tan

Publishing Information: Arthur A. Levin Books: New York, 2007
ISBN: 0439895294
: 128 p.
Ages: 12 & Up

An astonishing wordless graphic novel blends historical imagery with science-fiction elements to depict the journey of an immigrant man from his terror-beset land of origin to a new, more peaceful home.

From a bleak, sunless city haunted by the threat of scaled and serpentine monsters, a man sets forth to seek a new life in a new land, leaving his wife and daughter behind. His steamship voyage with a host of refugees takes him to a strange shore indeed, a country with its own architecture, alphabet, technologies -- even the pets look different. It's the triumph of this lavish yet somberly monochromatic wordless book that readers are put right into the refugee's shoes: we're as out of place as he, learning the customs of the country in step with the protagonist. With him, for example, we figure out how to use the transport system, and once aloft in the steam-driven air-ferry, we sit alongside him as another passenger tells her own story of imprisonment and escape. Small, meticulously composed square panels, sometimes twelve to a page, move the action along while larger pictures and double-page spreads display surreally majestic cityscapes as well as scenes of the disaster and oppression that led the nameless protagonist and others to seek this welcoming land. Subtle shifts from gray to brown to golden tones underline the chiaroscuro of the story's themes; all is warm light when the man and his family are united once again.

Book Talk:
Imagine what it ust be like to come to a new country. You don't know the new language. You don't know how to find a job or a place to live. Everyone around you is a stranger that you do not understand and who doesn't understand you. This new place you have come to seems like another world.

Then, there is what you left behind: your loved ones, everything that you knew, even the security of a life you built even if you are surrounded by trouble, warfare, or discrimination. What drives someone to risk leaving everything behind and starting all over again with the knowledge that you might fail because you are ignorant of everything about the place you are going to.

Shawn Tan has built and incredible world where one man has fled from a wartorn homeland to resettle and build a new life in a new land. He hopes to bring his family over as soon as he can, but he can only struggle to succeed on his own and worry about whether anything will happen to them before the day they can be reunited.

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Graphic Novels
Immigration and Emigration
Leaving Home
Separated Families

Awards & Reviews:
ALA Notable Children's Books, 2008
Booklist Editor's Choice: Books for Youth (Older Readers Categoryy), 2008
Bulletin Blue Ribbon (Fiction), 2007
Children's Book of the Year (Children's Book Council of Australia), 2007
New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books, 2007
New York Times Notable Children's Books, 2007
Parent's Choice Awards - Teens Gold Award, 2007
School Library Jounral Best Books, 2007
USBBY Outstanding International Books, 2008
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2008
YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens, 2008

Booklist, September1, 2007 (starred Review)
Horn Book, November/December 2007
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2007 (Starred Review)
Library Media Connection , November/December 2007
Publishers Weekly
, January 16, 2007, p. 166 (Starred Review)
School Library Journal, September 1, 2007, p. 225 (Starred Review)

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. What part do color and shading have to do with telling the story?
  2. What can you tell about the country that the main character is leaving?
  3. How can you tell that the ship is approaching land?
  4. What are his original impressions of the new country?
  5. Look at surreal painters like Salvadore Dali. What are the characteristics of their art and are there any similarities seen in the book, The Arrival
  6. How are the small and larger pages of pictures effective in telling the story?
  7. There are six sections in the book. Explain the purpose of each section. 
  8. This book is written by an Australian author. What is their story of immigration? Where did the majority of immigrants to Australia come from?
  9. How is the immigration story different from an American immigration story?
  10. In what ways are stories of immigration different? Similar?

Lesson Plans & Ideas :

  1. For TEACHER NOTES for The Arrival, based on the book by Shaun Tan The Arrival & the Curriculum Frameworksee:
  2. For the American Immigration Law Foundation web site filled with lesson plans for grades K – 12, see: immigration lesson plans
  3. For Activities and Projects Relating to the American Memory Project see:
  4. There are many ways to integrate primary sources and images from this lesson and the American Memory collections into your curriculum. The following projects and activities on the themes of immigration and turn-of-the-century America offer some ideas for integrating these materials into your students' work.
    1. Write a letter to a friend or relative back home from the point-of-view of an immigrant at the turn of the century. In your letter describe your journey over to America, your arrival at Ellis Island, and how you are adapting to life in your new country.
    2. Reread the chapter or sections on the immigration experience in your history textbook and search the American Memory collections for photographs to illustrate the narrative. Write a picture caption for each image you select or present your images as a picture essay.
    3. Create a collage of images and words from the collections to illustrate a theme in the American Memory collections such as patriotism, freedom, immigration, multiculturalism, or a related topic.
    4. Compile a picture book entitled "The Changing Face of America." Search for images of selected cities, towns, or streets at different periods of time in America's past. Be sure to write a caption identifying the setting (time and place in history) and significant visual clues the images provide about America's past.
    5. Imagine yourself as an investigative reporter. Search the collections to investigate and report on social and economic conditions in America at the turn of the century. Focus on living and working conditions for immigrant laborers. Select a historical photograph. Predict what will happen one minute, hour, or day after the photograph was taken. Cite reasons or evidence to support your predictions.
    6. Find two life histories that illustrate developing social roles relating to gender, race, life style, and technology. Create a chart or write a special feature for a history textbook to compare life "then" and "now."
    7. Choose a life history of an immigrant of special interest to you and continue the interview. Compile a list of questions that will elicit information you want to know about the subject and his or her experiences coming to and living in America.

    Activity 1: Telling a story without words
    The Arrival is based on the illustrated book by Shaun Tan. In the play, as in the book, the students will experience a textless narrative. Pre-show class activities can explore non verbal mediums of communication that allow for the transferral of messages and stories.

    • Brainstorming session: Discuss ways of communicating other than through verbal language, such as:
      - Gestures, body language, facial expressions, attitudes
      - Script, signs, symbols,
      - Images, shapes, colours
      - Sounds other than speech: vocal or non vocal noise, onomatopoeia, composed music
    • Group work: Narrative construction
      - Form groups of students to discuss and choose
      A - A story or theme they want to tell the rest of the class about
      B - Ways and means they are going to use
      While preparing their story, students will think of and choose ways of expressing ideas, impression, conveying feelings and impression to their audience and thus think over:
    • Feed-back: After each group has presented its theme, the student give their feedback on the means used to convey the different messages (efficiency; understanding; ambiguity) and compare the different presentations in the way they told the stories
      You can make this activity as elaborate as you wish depending on the themes and ways of expression chosen. This can be an-hour activity or an extended series of workshops.
  • Activity 2: Searching through the classified ads
    In The Arrival Aki arrives in a new city with unfamiliar rules and language. Pre-show class activities could focus on developing the awareness of arriving in a somewhere new.
    • Review of foreign newspapers or websites: Encourage students to explore the classified ad section of foreign newspapers / websites, in order to make them
      - experience the target language’s vernacular language
      - develop strategies to collect information for a precise purpose
      Example: The students can picture themselves in the situation of having to move to a new place. Ask them to scan through the real estate ads to find a home or flat to live in that suits their family needs and purposes.
    • Group work: Once they find a suitable advert, encourage the students think of and write down the type of questions they would ask to the person offering the flat/ home to buy/rent
    • Presentation to the class: Each group present to the others the result of their search, explaining why they have made their choice.
    • Compare some Australian classified ads with the ones studied in the target language: By comparing the classified ad sections in Australian and foreign newspapers, students can notice and analyse the differences or similarities in the language conventions and the types of abbreviations used
      You can base this activity by selected Classifieds section of any foreign newspapers or having the students look out on the Internet for foreign employment and housing.
  • Activity 3: Connecting with the rest of the world
    In The Arrival, Aki stays in contact with his family by corresponding with letter birds…
    Pre-excursion activities can convey students a sense of multiculturalism by enhancing the numerous links Australians have with the rest of world through family history or contemporary immigration.
    • Drawing a ‘communication’ map: Students can discuss the towns, states or other countries where they have some of their relatives, friends or pen pals living and draw on a world map the lines created by their communication within Australia and the rest of the world.


© The Arrival Teacher Notes 2008
Encourage them to discuss the different realities experienced by these friends or relatives leaving elsewhere such as climate, city/country life (transport, food, language…)
•Group Discussion: Discuss how students keep in touch with their relatives and friends.

  • How do they communicate with them (phone, letters, email)?
  • How often they use the means of communication discussed?
  • Why do they choose one mean rather than another?
Building statistics: Students can then create a graph or a pie chart that represents the part of each of these communication tools in the class. Get students to discuss the results. Point out to students that although this may appear like a maths exercise, it does help to understand how they communicate with their relatives.

Students to write to students of the same age in another country, as pen pals. They should introduce who they are and tell their pen pal about their school and home environment. Students should tell their pen pal that they are going on an excursion to see a puppet show. They should explain as much as they can about it - it is based on a book by Shaun Tan ; there will be different styles of puppets etc. They should also explain how they feel about going on excursion (are they excited, imaginative, unsure, or bored).
•Students may also like to include a photo or a drawing of something uniquely Australian. Let students discuss what this might mean.
•The teacher is to then send the letters and wait for a response.

Encourage students to think about characters feelings and emotions – what is it like to be ‘new’ (new child at school, new house, new suburb, new country etc). Encourage students to explain how they would make their pen pals feel comfortable and welcome if they were to visit their school.

Related Websites:
Author's Website:
How to Read a Wordless Book:
Immigration: the Changing Face of America:
Scholastic's Immigration: Stories of Yesterday and Today:
ited States Citizenship and Immigration Services:
United States Census Bureau: Immigration Data:

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Other Books by the Author:
The Lost Thing, 2000
The Red Tree, 2003
Robot Dog, 2005
The Haunted Playground, 2008

About the Author:
Shaun Tan was born in 1974 and grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. In school he became known as the “good drawer” which partly compensated for always being the shortest kid in every class. He graduated from the University of WA in 1995 with joint honours in Fine Arts and English Literature, and currently works full time as a freelance artist and author, concentrating mostly on writing and illustrating picture books.

Shaun began drawing and painting images for science fiction and horror stories in small-press magazines as a teenager, and has since then he has received numerous awards for his picture books, including the CBCA (Children’s Book Council of Australia) Picture Book of the Year Award for The Rabbits with John Marsden. In 2001 Shaun was named Best Artist at the World Fantasy Awards in Montreal. He has recently worked for Blue Sky Studios and Pixar, providing concept artwork for forthcoming films.

| ©2004 - Rhode Island Teen Book Award Committee | Aaron Coutu, Chair