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Top 100 Picture Books #65: The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2006)

#65 The Arrival by Shaun Tan
30 points

This book is Epic. It doesn’t just “tell” an immigrant’s story, it magically (or I suppose, skillfully) brings us INTO the very experience. – Aaron Zenz

Because it’s a richly imagined, beautifully rendered, wordless graphic narrative of immigration, dislocation, and hope. – Phillip Nel

#68 then. #65 now.  There’s no question it belongs on this list.

So is it a picture book?  Well, let’s see.  It tells a story entirely with pictures and not a single word (or, at least, not a single word we can understand).  You might call it a graphic novel too, except it eschews thought bubbles and speech balloons.  Yet it does break itself into panels quite often… but can’t the same be said of many picture books, like The Adventures of Polo and the like?  Is there an age limit to it?  Maybe (there are some scary scenes) but when do children stop reading picture books?  Many read them for years, though often on the sly when around peers or siblings.

I hereby proclaim that until someone can pin down a definite genre for a book as amazing, miraculous, and downright fun as The Arrival, here it shall remain on this Top 100 Books poll.

My review back in the day of it said this about the plot: “A man prepares to leave his family for a new world. Tearfully they let him go as he boards a ship for another land. Once he arrives, however, he finds himself at a loss. Everything from the language to the buildings to the birds is strange here. The reader of this book sympathizes easily with the man since author/illustrator Shaun Tan has created a world that is just as odd to us as it is to our protagonist. Appliances consist of confusing pulls and toggles. People live and work in plate and cone-shaped structures, traveling via dirigibles and strange ship-shaped machinations of flight. As the man proceeds to discover how to find lodging, food, and work, he meets other immigrants who tell their own stories of hardship and escape. Through all this, our man grows richer for his experiences and even grows to love the odd little white-legged cat-sized tadpole creature that follows him everywhere. By the end, his family has arrived as well and the last image in the book is of his daughter as she helps another immigrant get directions in this dazzling and magnificent city.”

Are there those amongst ye who have not read this book?  Then go to it.  I could wax rhapsodic for days on end about the power and beauty of this story, but I’ll let the experts do it for me.

The New York Times said of it, ” ‘The Arrival’ tells not an immigrant’s story, but the immigrant’s story. . . The effect is mesmerizing. Reading ‘The Arrival’ feels like paging through a family treasure newly discovered up in the attic.”

Booklist said, “Filled with subtlety and grandeur, the book is a unique work that not only fulfills but also expands the potential of its form.”

The Washington Post
said, “Hundreds of sepia-toned drawings, some tiny, some panoramic, all pulsing with detail, combine to produce an effect reminiscent of silent movies or mime, the absence of words forcing the eye and the brain to work harder.”

And Kirkus said, “It’s an unashamed paean to the immigrant’s spirit, tenacity and guts, perfectly crafted for maximum effect.”

As of this post, Shaun Tan has still not had a chance to visit Ellis Island.  And any questions you might have about the book could probably be answered here.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. This is a picture book, but in my opinion, it is not a children’s book.