Category Archives: Graphic Novels

The Book Whisperer Reviews Shaun Tan


I’m still working to meet my 2017 reading challenge. Also, I read an article about several graphic artists and graphic novels one should know. Shaun Tan was featured in the article along with other authors, but I have chosen two of Tan’s books to review here: The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook and The Arrival.

The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook provides insight into Shaun Tan’s creative process. He relates that “”I’m often wary of using the word ‘inspiration’ to introduce my work — it sounds too much like a sun shower from the heavens, absorbed by a passive individual enjoying an especially receptive moment. While that may be the case on rare occasions, the reality is usually far more prosaic. Staring at a blank piece of paper, I can’t think of anything original. I feel utterly uninspired and unreceptive. It’s the familiar malaise of ‘artist’s block’ and in such circumstances, there is only one thing to do: just start drawing.” The images below are from The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook.

Although the book is full of drawings, it also includes notes from Tan about his creative process and thoughts. For example, in a post titled “Untold Stories,” Tan explains that he usually begins with images rather than words in order to tell a story. He tells readers that “a drawing feels successful to me when it is both clear and ambiguous.”

Later in the book in a note titled “Book, Theater, and Film,” Tan describes his process of working with film. He keeps drawings pinned all over the walls. As the project continues, he may rearrange the drawings, or even cut them apart and reposition them with other drawings, thus creating a new picture.

In the last note of the book, “Notebooks,” Tan explains that “it’s surprising what sense can emerge from nonsense, and how the juxtaposition of odd images on a page can have a serendipitous effect, catching ideas that might otherwise be hidden beneath the waves.” The entire book reflects Tan’s creative spirit; the pictures are in color and sepia-tone. The Bird King: An Artists’ Notebook is a lovely book, one a reader can enjoy over and over and always find something new to admire.

The Arrival depicts in sepia-tones without words the feelings of immigrants as they enter a new country. Critics and readers alike have found The Arrival touching and inspiring. Jeff Smith who wrote Bone describes The Arrival as “a shockingly imaginative graphic novel that captures the sense of adventure and wonder that surrounds a new arrival on the shores of a shining new city.”

Without words, The Arrival conveys the sense of wonder, strangeness, and fascination the immigrant feels upon arriving in a new country. Like most good books, The Arrival is one readers can return to and find something new each time.

Shaun Tan was born in 1974 in Perth, Western Australia. After graduating from the University of WA with degrees in fine arts and English literature, he began working full-time as a freelance artist in Melbourne. He has illustrated books on social, political, and historical material. In addition, he has contributed to films such as Horton Hears a Who and WALL-E. Learn more about Shaun Tan at his Web site: