This, at 128 pages, could best be called a wordless short novel. The sepia drawings have Van Allsburg style shading with its ability to create a slightly exaggerated 3D look on faces. Dozens of these faces stare out from the end papers clearly chosen to represent a wide range of cultures. The old-photo look places them sometime in the, perhaps not too distant, past.
As the story opens the main character is packing to leave his wife and young daughter. As they walk through their city to the train station we get the first indication that this is not going to be a literal telling. There are gigantic serpentine shapes weaving among the buildings. Dragons' tails?
This, however, is nothing compared to the surreal drawings which Tan uses to portray the country the immigrant arrives in. The confusing drawings do a brilliant job of allowing us to feel the newcomer's confusion and disorientation.
There are realistic renderings of the new immigrant experience such as when he first arrives and tries desperately to communicate in a page spread which consists of a series of upper body snapshots of the new immigrant. There are also fantastical drawings representing how a foreign land might appear to someone newly arrived.
Any classroom unit on immigration could benefit from careful readings of these illustrations. Try puzzling out what kinds of obstacles the illustrations depict. Shaun Tan has broken some new ground with this book.
Things to Talk About and Notice
- Notice how we see the book through the eyes of the man. Find illustrations in the book where the man is in front of us, but with his back to us so that we see what he sees. This is a wonderful example, through illustration, of the classic first person narrator and can be used to help students recognize first person narration in texts.
Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel by Leslie Connor. Illustrated by Mary Azarian. (2004, Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618305645. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr 1-9.
We meet Miss Bridie on the cover as she leaves her family behind in the thatched roof cottage in the Ireland of 1856. She is given a choice of things to take with her. She chooses a shovel and throughout her life in the new country, that shovel comes to good use. This is a delightful story with a double theme of immigration and the life cycle. Azarian's sturdy woodcuts are the perfect medium with which to depict the life and deeds of this strong woman. Featured Book Teachers' Guide with discussion ideas, activities, related books and links.
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. (1988, Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0671649639. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr K-3.
A Russian immigrant mother and family arrive in the United States. She plans to make a quilt from a basket of old clothes, telling her daughter, "It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night." The quilt is passed along from mother to daughter for four generations. It becomes a Sabbath tablecloth and a wedding canopy. When it becomes a blanket for new generations of children, it really tells a family's story of love, faith and endurance. Featured Book Teachers' Guide with discussion ideas, activities, related books and links.
Torchlight by Carol Otis Hurst. (2006, Walter Lorraine Books/Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618276017. Order Info.) Novel. 142 pages. Gr 4-7.
Torchlight is a novel set in 1850's Westfield, Massachusetts. Set against the mounting tensions between the Irish and the Yankees, Maggie and Charlotte's friendship doesn't stand a chance. This book by our own Carol Hurst, her last novel before her death, is a great introduction to religious and ethnic tensions in New England. Read More.
Nory Ryan's Song by Patricia Reilly Giff. (2002, Yearling. ISBN 0440418291. Order Info.) Novel. 176 pages. Gr 4-8.
Nory Ryan's Song takes place during the "Great Hunger" in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. The potato blight that struck that crop destroyed much more than potatoes. We see it all through the eyes of twelve-year-old Nory Ryan who tries to help her family and her community survive. Featured Book Teachers' Guide with discussion ideas, activities, related books and links.