With Shaun Tan's The Arrival (2007) and Cicada (2019), he has proved himself to be an author/illustrator acutely sympathetic to the immigrant experience. Eric, a breakout story from Tan's Tales from Outer Suburbia, takes an inverse but no less compassionate approach to the subject--it looks at a visitor through the eyes of a kid from the host country--and the picture-book format gives Tan's masterful artwork the room it deserves, allowing the story to be accessible to young readers.
"Some years ago we had a foreign exchange student come to live with us," reports Eric's narrator, who goes unnamed and unseen. Much about Eric is perplexing--for one thing, he enjoys inspecting small objects (a button, a bottle cap) more than he enjoys his host's carefully planned sightseeing expeditions. What apparently doesn't perplex the narrator, who says nothing on the subject, is the fact that Eric is diminutive enough to sleep in a teacup (and does) and has a black tripointed head, triangular body and stick limbs. Presumably, the narrator has been tipped off that "foreigners" may look a little different.
When Eric unceremoniously departs, his host family frets ("Did Eric seem upset?") until they discover the thank-you gift he has left behind: an indoor gardenscape in which 30-odd bottle caps and other wee objects hold luminous little plants--the only injections of color in Tan's meticulous graphite art. The narrator's well-meaning mother trundles out her fallback line--"It must be a cultural thing"--but by now the reader has likely come to understand that it's an Eric thing. Eric is a cunning reminder of the uniqueness of every individual, "foreign" or otherwise. --Nell Beram, freelance writer and YA author