If you aren’t familiar with the works of Shaun Tan, then I’m glad you’ve chanced across this post! This Australian illustrator-writer-creator-imaginer has an uncanny knack to take the mundane, flip it around and present it back to the world in the form of breathtaking picture books.
eric is from Tales of Outer Suburbia, an anthology that deals with the concepts of ‘otherness’ and ‘belonging’. The story, whence read without the images, is that of a foreign exchange student with strange mannerisms that are simply chalked down to ‘it must be a cultural thing.’
eric, in form, is a thumb-sized alien-esque creature, lean, dark and absolutely adorable. His travelling bags are made of acorn shells and his prefered bedroom is the kitchen pantry. The eager young narrator seeks to show him the wonders of zirs* home and suburbia, and when there is a lack of understanding and communication, falls back to the comfort of ‘it must be a cultural thing.’
The narrative stays unassuming of eric’s opinion, as often is when faced with an unknown culture. The illustrations, on the other hand, make the reader fall more and more in love with the little curious creature. In unravelling the transparent metaphor, the reader can replace the figure of the shadowy alien, with a human from another culture and re-read this miniature eric-sized book of heartache.
Shaun Tan’s illustrations are intricate and detailed as always. Seemingly everyday objects are imbued with strange meanings and contexts; for example, a simple teacup turns into eric’s bed. An observant reader can spend hours poring over the pages and will always find a new and enthralling detail.
* Gender neutral narrators get their gender neutral pronouns too. Ze= he/she; zirs = hers/his, etc.
Writer at Art1st
PS. A starting point for discussion can be this question: Why is eric written small letters? How does this contribute to the ‘otherness’ of this book?
PPS. While looking through the illustrations, look out for repeated objects and different perspectives of the same thing. What do you learn about eric’s everyday life and his hosts’ world?