28 February 2008

Who Should Welcome The Arrival?

Shaun Tan's The Arrival was one of the five titles on the shortlist for the 2007 Cybils Award for Best Graphic Novels for teens and young adults. And that proved to be a problem.

Because we Cybils judges weren't all sure it was for teens and young adults. Or at least for those readers exclusively. We discussed the possibility of naming The Arrival as 2007's best graphic novel for middle-grade readers. It just screams "award-winner": it's beautiful; it's serious; even if it's not strictly speaking historical fiction, it has historical resonance; it leaves us with a "sense of hope." It's one artist's vision, not a shiny corporate product.

But The Arrival wasn't nominated in the middle-grade category. After we raised the question of age range, we learned that the organizing/nominating committee had already had long discussions about how to categorize this book. In the end we respected their decision.

After all, those organizers had checked with The Arrival's US publisher, Scholastic, which markets the book for ages "12+". Amazon and the ALA have put it on their lists of best books for teens (though other authorities have said it's simply one of the year's best books for children). For another insightful perspective on this discussion, see Dave Elzey's "what was i thinking? notes of a cybils judge".

All of that thinking raises interesting questions about how to determine the reading level for a wordless comic. Extrapolation says that almost anyone should be able to read them. Fewer words = younger readers. Shorter words = younger readers. So no words at all = ?

Of course, not having any words to guide us makes The Arrival harder to read, not easier. Indeed, making us struggle to interpret a strange world is how the book coveys the immigrant experience. It also demands some knowledge of history and population movements. So perhaps teen readers are the right audience after all.

On the other hand, The Arrival's underlying story, once decoded, is very simple. It's a cycle: one immigrant finds a place in a new society, and ultimately his daughter welcomes another. The protagonist never seems to face problems that last more than a page spread. For all its strangeness, he's found himself in a very friendly world. Even the strange creature infesting his new apartment...
...turns into a pleasant, helpful pet.

The Arrival simply doesn't have the levels of plotting, characterization and tone of The Professor's Daughter, which was our top choice for teen graphic novel. Tan's book was one of my top choices in its age category, but not the top. So perhaps it would be better for younger readers.

But would those readers relate to a protagonist who's a grown man rather than a child? I actually don't think this should be a big problem. The first pages establish that that man isn't just any man: he's a daddy. I bet young readers would have an immediate feeling for a parent going off to work and hoping to see his child again. Throw in the funny pet and the daughter's role in closing the cycle, and I think The Arrival holds plenty of emotional meaning for younger readers.

I think the real challenge for The Arrival is not being mistaken for a picture book. It looks an awful lot like one, with its oversized trim and its many pictures. So parents might be tempted to treat it as a story they can read aloud to a child in one sitting. That won't work. The book's four times as long as the usual picture book. And how does one share a wordless book with a child?

The Arrival demands--and deserves--a new approach. Instead of reading the text together, an adult and child probably have to discuss the pictures. They can take turns narrating what's happening on the pages with many drawings, or picking out favorite details in the two-page cityscapes. They can track visual motifs through the book. They can talk about their own family histories. They can puzzle over mysterious pages--like a whole page spread of small pictures of clouds--without the adult having all the answers. (My best guess: Each cloud shows a day passing on the protagonist's voyage.) The Arrival has chapters: it doesn't have to be read in one sitting.

Of course, I don't have an elementary/middle-grade child to experiment on. So I might give copies of The Arrival to different families and monitor from afar.


Monica Edinger said...

You've seen all my posts on my using the book with my fourth graders? Beforehand I did a bit of online searching for other uses of the book in schools and only came across a handful of high school teachers using it in creative writing settings. So I'm the only person I can really document child response (and three of my colleagues also used it with their classes) and would argue that it is a middle grade book for many of the reasons you and David cite.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I did look at your reports on how your classroom got into The Arrival. It was very impressive, and helped convince me that elementary-school kids can understand and enjoy the book.

You folks, of course, have a lot of great resources. Ellis Island is not only part of the New York City culture, but within range for a field trip. Still, I believe that kids anywhere can understand the immigrant experience.

I also wondered how younger kids would read The Arrival outside of a classroom. My guess, as I described, is that the book would work best as a focus for conversation with a parent. Reading it alone might be much less rewarding, and of course it's not for traditional reading aloud.