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Different Drums: Word Girl

The Horn Book Magazine asked Luann Toth, “What’s the strangest children’s book you’ve ever enjoyed?”

I have to confess upfront to being a word girl.

Don’t get me wrong: I love art, especially when the interplay of a book’s words and images click to form the perfect vehicle for the storytelling, but it is usually a character’s voice and the author’s prose that give me a sense of where I am and how to navigate the landscape. Having never really read comics as a kid, I was slow to warm to the graphic novel format and had rather awkwardly embraced the potential of visual narratives.

Then came Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. The traditional look and feel of a timeworn family album, with its sepia cover image, grounds readers in an easily relatable reality. But wait, what else is going on here? Who or what is that bizarre creature? It is immediately clear that this unassuming man with suitcase in hand is entering a place that is at once strange and marvelous, and we are irresistibly drawn to follow him. This juxtaposition of the real and the surreal, the familiar and the foreign, is at the heart of a brilliant, wordless exploration of the immigrant experience. Tan opens with domestic scenes of home, heart, and family, and the suitcase, into which the man packs up all that is known and comforting. A page turn shows readers all that they need to know about the ominous threat that looms over his homeland and why he must leave in search of a safe haven for his loved ones. The alienation and dispirited confusion of being a stranger in a strange land becomes palpable in the sequential art. The man is as helpless as a child as he needs to relearn basic life functions in a bustling industrial city. Yet despite the hardships and displacement, he slowly makes friends and begins to forge a new life. The haunting beauty of Tan’s artwork and the sheer audaciousness of his imagination gave the story its emotional resonance and made this word girl a true believer in the power and reach of visual storytelling.

From the March/April 2013 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Luann Toth About Luann Toth

Luann Toth is the managing editor of School Library Journal’s book review. Her background is in public library service, but she has been with the magazine for twenty-three years.

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