This year, the Boston Globe-Horn Book award awarded Shaun Tan a special citation for excellence in graphic storytelling for his book The Arrival. Since 1967 the Boston Globe – Horn Book award has issued awards in excellence in literature in three categories: Fiction & Poetry, Nonfiction, and Picture Books. In addition, the committee is allowed – on occasion – to award a book with a special citation.
Back in January of 2008 when attending the Youth Media Awards at ALA’s midwinter convention, I was disappointed that The Arrival had not received any recognition. While the title had certainly generated a lot of buzz, none of the award committees had mentioned it, perhaps because they didn’t know how to peg this book. Back then, I was still serving on the Great Graphic Novel for Teens committee and it was one of the titles we had considered. (It made the top ten.) But I and others on the committee were sure this had been an egregious oversight on the awards committees’ part. (To be fair to those serving on an award committee, there is always a title someone thinks should have made it to the list!)
But The Arrival by Shaun Tan was something special. I was immediately taken by Tan’s realistic yet surreal look at immigration. The book’s end papers are rows of sepia toned photo-like drawing, cracked and made to look like they were weathered with age, of immigrant faces. I thought I was going to read about an ordinary immigrant story. Instead, I was introduced to an entirely unexpected experience.
For one, the book is told entirely in pictures. I was reading a story and yet I had no words to read! But I didn’t need words for Tan to evoke the feelings of wonder, confusion, homesickness, and hope for a bright new future. For another, I kept having to go back to look at the pictures again. I was sure I had seen a ship heading to Ellis Island and the lines and interviews so many immigrants had endured on Ellis Island, but then I would see the strange marking of a foreign (made-up) language – not English - or the statue of two figures reaching out across the water to lend a hand – not the Statue of Liberty – and the odd fantastical creatures the immigrant man has befriended. This was the experience I learned about from the history books, but it wasn’t.
While readers flip through this book in my library, most don’t check out this beautiful title. Yet teachers doing an immigration unit or reading a historical novel with an immigration theme will want to introduce this title to their class.
Some might be like my 12-year-old nephew – a voracious reader who’s not much of a graphic novel fan – and just won’t get it. But to really “read” this book one needs to know the story of immigration.
For those who try and delve into the pictures and story, they’ll be lucky to share in a unique and breathtaking reading experience.
Congratulations Shaun Tan on a job well done!
Incidentally, The Wall by Peter Sis was awarded the nonfiction Boston Globe Horn Book Award, which was also a Top Ten on the GGNT list of 2008. And the fiction award was given to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. While not a graphic novel, Alexie’s book did include some cartoon sketches reminiscent to the sketches in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It leads me to believe that this year’s award committee was very favorable to the sequential art medium.