The Arrival Shaun Tan Essay Contest

Last year I got an e-mail from Alison Binney asking for permission to use some images from my book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style for an article she was writing for an teachers’ publication. She recently sent me a copy of the booklet, Planning for Innovation in English Teaching, and I really appreciated her article, “Every picture tells a story: Exploring a sense of place inThe Arrival by Shaun Tan”, which chronicles her first attempts to use comics in a secondary school English class setting.  Alison herself is a newcomer to comics and I was impressed by how game she was to give it a try and, more importantly, how quickly she grasped the fundamentals of comics language and  was able to align them with her concerns as an English teacher, much to the delight, as it turns out, of her students.


I’m an English teacher from Cambridge, England. I work in an 11-18 comprehensive school, teaching students across the full age and ability range. Like most English teachers in the UK, almost all the reading I do with students in the classroom involves purely print-based texts. However, for a while I’ve been wanting to explore how teaching comics might work in an English classroom.

Given that I came to this with no experience of teaching comics at all, my choice of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, a graphic novel in which the entire story is told through pictures alone, might seem unusual! For an English teacher used to working solely with words, it was certainly a challenge to my lesson planning, my expertise and my whole thinking about what constitutes ‘reading’. However, it was a challenge that I very much enjoyed, as well as being one that has enriched my practice as an English teacher.

I chose to teach The Arrival mostly because I’d loved the experience of reading it myself. But it was also a good choice for the school where I teach because it is a very ethnically and linguistically diverse community. Quite a few of our students have had the experience of moving from one country to another, so I hoped that these students would be able to bring some of the experiences they had had to their exploration of The Arrival. At the same time, studying a book without any words could help to provide a level playing field for those students who were fairly new to speaking and understanding English. The group of students I chose to study it with was a mixed ability class of 28 students aged 13 and 14.

The first thing I did with the group, before we started to look at The Arrival, was to spend a lesson working with Matt’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style. I photocopied different versions of the story and gave them out to my students, who had to look at the page they’d been given and then tell that story to their neighbour, without showing them the page. They then compared the versions they’d been given in small groups. It was great to watch the dawning realisation all around the classroom that they all actually had the same story, just told in many different ways! This then led into an exploration of some of the techniques used by cartoonists, such as zooming in or out, arranging the panels vertically or horizontally, changing perspective etc. For the majority of my students, who had little experience of this genre, this provided a really good introduction to some of the techniques used in comics and graphic novels.

The template comic that serves as the raw material of 99 Ways

Extreme close-ups

Manga version

The main challenge presented by teaching The Arrival was how to ‘read’ it together as a class. As an English teacher with 12 years of experience, I was very used to sharing novels with a class. But how do you ‘read’ a text without any words? I wanted our exploration of The Arrival to be a collective process, so I was keen to try to recreate the experience of sharing a text that is read aloud. The nearest equivalent I could come up with was to project the images from the first chapter of The Arrival onto the board using a visualiser so that the whole class could look at each image at the same time. This generated some really interesting discussions, and it was lovely to see how one student’s observation would trigger another’s speculation about what might be going on.

After looking at the first chapter together, I then experimented with different approaches. Sometimes students read a particular chapter in pairs and sometimes in small groups. Interestingly, while most seemed to enjoy the collaborative nature of this sort of reading, one or two students became so absorbed in their own reading that they preferred to remove themselves from their small groups and read on their own. When I asked the students afterwards which method of reading they had most enjoyed, there was no consensus at all: some had liked looking at images together as a whole class the best (“I like hearing everybody’s ideas”), others enjoyed the small group and pair work (“I liked looking at the book in pairs because you can work at each other’s pace and it makes you think about what the writer is trying to tell you”), while others very definitely valued the solitary nature of exploring the book on their own.

One thing I learnt from this was how comfortable the students were about asking questions about The Arrival while they were reading, and how valuable the discussions they then had with each other about what they were noticing were. When I’m reading a print-based text with a class I always invite and encourage discussion, but usually at the end of a chapter or episode. And while students are often keen to discuss what they’re reading, they are generally much less willing to admit to not understanding things. While teaching The Arrival, I found it really interesting to observe that when students didn’t understand what they were looking at in a picture they had no hesitation in expressing this, without seeming to feel the same sense of inadequacy that they might if they were making the same admission about a piece of written text. The students themselves were enthusiastic about the sense of open-endedness that they experienced when exploring a story told through pictures. As one of them said, “It was good because the pictures could mean anything you wanted them to.” Somehow, these students seemed to feel a greater freedom from inhibition in responding to pictures than they often did in their response to written texts.


I was also interested in using our study of The Arrival to explore the relationship between the visual techniques used by artists and the creative techniques used in writing. Most students in my class were able to grasp very quickly some of the techniques Shaun Tan uses, such as zooming out from an extreme close up to a long shot over a sequence of several panels. Not only could they spot the techniques Tan uses, but they were also able to come up with really perceptive ideas about why he might have chosen to use these techniques and what effects were being created. We then explored how some of these techniques might be applied in creative writing. With the zooming out example the students chose from a list of objects such as a knife, a candle, and a glass of water, and then wrote a sequence of paragraphs in which they described the object in detail, and then imagined they were zooming further and further out, gradually describing more and more of the object’s surrounding context.

The first page of The Arrival, a grid of nine panels showing details of the protagonist's household

Rather than just using The Arrival as a vehicle for developing students’ creative writing, I also wanted our exploration of The Arrival to open the students’ eyes to the whole medium of comics. Only a few students in the class were already keen readers of comics, manga and graphic novels when we started looking at The Arrival, but by the time we had finished studying it several others were keen to explore more comics, and I tried to feed their newfound enthusiasm by bringing in a selection for them to have a look at, as well as directing them to the relevant section in the school library.

At the end of our study of The Arrival I gave the students in my class three options: they could either read another graphic novel and keep a reading journal to record their thoughts and responses; create their own short comic; or produce an extended piece of writing using some of the creative writing techniques we’d been looking at in our work on The Arrival. Half the class chose to create their own comics, with the other half split fairly evenly between the other two options. Once again, 99 Ways was really helpful for students thinking about how to create their own comics, and Scott McCloud’s Making Comics was also invaluable.

Altogether, I found that teaching The Arrival was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience, and as someone who started out with no expertise in teaching comics at all, I ended up feeling excited by the possibilities of exploring the genre further in English lessons. The fact that most of my students enjoyed it too is summed up by one student’s final comment in her evaluation of these lessons: “Could we look at more graphic novels? Please and thank you!”

Alison Binney is Head of English at The Netherhall School in Cambridge, UK, where she teaches students aged from 11 – 18, and also teaches trainee secondary school teachers on the PGCE Course at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education. She has been teaching English for 13 years and is a recent convert to the pleasures of reading and teaching comics.

You can purchase the booklet Planning for Innovation in English Teaching, containing the article on which this post was based, here.

Student activity based on the first page of The Arrival

Shaun Tan is an Australian artist, writer and film maker. He won an Academy Award for The Lost Thing, a 2011 animated film adaptation of a 2000 picture book he wrote and illustrated. Beside The Lost Thing, The Red Tree and The Arrival are books he has written and illustrated.

Tan was born in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1974 and grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. In 2006, his wordless graphic novelThe Arrival won the Book of the Year prize as part of the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards.[1] The same book won the Children's Book Council of AustraliaPicture Book of the Year award in 2007.[2] and the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards Premier's Prize in 2006.[3]

Tan's work has been described as an "Australian vernacular" that is "at once banal and uncanny, familiar and strange, local and universal, reassuring and scary, intimate and remote, guttersnipe and sprezzatura. No rhetoric, no straining for effect. Never other than itself."[4]

For his career contribution to "children's and young adult literature in the broadest sense" Tan won the 2011 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award from the Swedish Arts Council, the biggest prize in children's literature.[5]


Early life

As a boy, Tan spent time illustrating poems and stories and drawing dinosaurs, robots and spaceships. At school he was known as a talented artist.[6] At the age of eleven, he became a fan of The Twilight Zone television series as well as books that bore similar themes. Tan cites Ray Bradbury as a favorite at this time. These stories led to Tan writing his own short stories. Of his effort at writing as a youth, Tan tells, "I have a small pile of rejection letters as testament to this ambition!"[7] At the age of sixteen, Tan's first illustration appeared in the Australian magazine Aurealis in 1990.[7]

Transition to illustration

Tan almost studied to become a geneticist, and enjoyed chemistry, physics, history and English while in high school as well as art and claimed that he did not really know what he wanted to do.[7] During his university studies, Tan decided to move from academic studies to working as an artist.[8]

Tan continued his education at the University of Western Australia where he studied Fine Arts, English Literature and History. While this was of interest to him, there was little practical work involved.[8] In 1995, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts.[9]

Work process

Initially, Tan worked in black and white because the final reproductions would be printed that way. Some black and white mediums he used included pens, inks, acrylics, charcoal, scraperboard, photocopies and linocuts.[7] Tan's current colour works still begin as black and white. He uses a graphite pencil to make sketches on ordinary copy paper. The sketches are then reproduced numerous times with different versions varying with parts added or removed. Sometimes scissors are used for this purpose. The cut and paste collage idea in these early stages often extend to the finished production with many of his illustrations using such materials as "glass, metal, cuttings from other books and dead insects."[7]

Tan describes himself as a slow worker who revises his work many times along the way. He is interested in loss and alienation, and believes that children in particular react well to issues of natural justice. He feels he is "like a translator" of ideas, and is happy and flattered to see his work adapted and interpreted in film and music (such as by the Australian Chamber Orchestra).[10]


Tan draws from a large source of inspiration and cites many influences on his work. His comment on the subject is: "I’m pretty omnivorous when it comes to influences, and I like to admit this openly."[7] Some influences are very direct. The Lost Thing is a strong example where Tan makes visual references to famous artworks. Many of his influences are a lot more subtle visually, some of the influences are ideological. Below are some influences he has named in various interviews:

  • Films: Brazil, Yellow Submarine
  • Filmmakers: Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott
  • Artists and illustrators: Francis Bacon, Hieronymous Bosch, Raymond Briggs, Ron Brooks, Frederick Clement, Joseph Cornell, Giorgio de Chirico, Milton Glaser, Edward Gorey, John Olsen, Michael Leunig, René Magritte, Sidney Nolan, Gerald Scarfe, Katsushika Hokusai, J. Otto Seibold, Peter Sís, Lane Smith, Ralph Steadman, Arthur Streeton, Brett Whiteley, John Brack, Fred Williams, and Chris Van Allsburg
  • Other: paintings in galleries, "an arrangement of clouds, a lighting effect, a picture in a newspaper, or indeed supermarket plumbing",[11] incidents, textures and accidental compositions created by objects, things from other cultures and times, Polish poster art, streets, clouds, jokes, times of the day, people, animals, the way paint runs down a canvas, or colors go together.


The Shaun Tan Award for Young Artists is sponsored by the City of Subiaco and open to all Perth school children between 5 and 17 years. The award is aimed at encouraging creativity in two-dimensional works. It is held annually with award winners announced in May and finalists' works exhibited at the Subiaco Library throughout June.[12]



  • L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Contest: First Australian to win[7]




  • Ditmar Award, Artwork, Winner for Eidolon Issue 19 (Cover)[13]


  • Ditmar Award, Professional Artwork, Nominated for artwork in Eidolon and the cover of The Stray Cat[13]



  • Aurealis Conveners' Award for Excellence for The Rabbits
  • Children's Book Council of Australia, Notable Book for The Playground
  • Children's Book Council of Australia, Picture Book of the Year, Winner for The Rabbits
  • Ditmar Award, Australian Professional Artwork, Nominated for The Rabbits[13]
  • Spectrum Gold Award for Book Illustration for The Rabbits


  • APA Design Award for Memorial
  • Children's Book Council of Australia, Picture Book of the Year, Honour Book for Memorial
  • Ditmar Award, Artwork, Winner for The Coode St Review Of Science Fiction[13]
  • Spectrum Gold Award for Book Illustration
  • Western Australian Premier's Book Awards, Writing for Young Adults award, Shortlisted for Lost Thing[14]




  • Premier's Prize and Children's Books category winner in the Western Australian Premier's Book Awards for The Arrival








  • The Red Tree, a play based on Tan's book of the same name, was commissioned by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.[23]
  • The Red Tree, a music performance created by new composer Michael Yezerski with Richard Tognetti; performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra with the youth choir Gondwana Voices, and accompanied by images from the book.[24]
  • The Arrival. Images from this book were projected during a performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra of conductor Richard Tognetti’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 15[24]
  • The Lost Thing has been adapted as an Oscar-winning animated short film.[25]
  • The Lost Thing inspired an album by Sydney band Lo-Tel, complete with artwork from the book.
  • The Lost Thing has also been adapted as a play by the Jigsaw Theatre Company,[26] a youth theatre company in Canberra. This was the main event for the National Gallery of Australia's Children Festival (Canberra) and at the Chookahs! Kids Festival (Melbourne) in 2006.
  • The Lost Thing was the theme for the 2006 Chookahs! Kids Festival at The Arts Centre[27] in Melbourne, with many different activities based on concepts from the book.
  • The Arrival was adapted for the stage by Red Leap Theatre.[28]
  • The Arrival was again projected on a screen to an orchestral score, performed by Orkestra of the Underground with 18 pieces created by musician and composer Ben Walsh. This was performed in the Opera House in Sydney, The Melbourne Recital Centre and Her Majesty's Theatre in Adelaide.[29]
  • The Rabbits was the basis for an opera by Kate Miller-Heidke; its premiere was performed by the West Australian Opera during the 2015 Perth International Arts Festival.



As illustrator

  • Pipe, by James Moloney (1996)
  • The Stray Cat, by Steven Paulsen (1996)
  • The Doll, by Janine Burke (1997)
  • The Half Dead, by Garry Disher (1997)
  • The Viewer, written by Gary Crew (1997)
  • The Rabbits, written by John Marsden (1998)
  • The Hicksville Horror, by Nette Hilton (1999)
  • The Puppet, by Ian Bone (1999)
  • Memorial, written by Gary Crew (1999)
  • Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link (2008)

As author and illustrator


  • Mural in the Children's Section of the Subiaco Public Library (Perth, Western Australia).[30]


  1. "2007 NSW Premier's Literary Awards", The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2007 
  2. "Winners 2007", Book of the Year Awards, CBCA .
  3. "Shaun Tan", Premier's Book Awards Hall of Fame, State Library of Western Australia .
  4. Robb, Peter (13 September 2013). "The view from outside". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  5. 1 2 "2011: Shaun Tan: A masterly visual storyteller". The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Retrieved 2012-08-13.
  6. "Biography: Shaun Tan". Scholastic. Retrieved 27 August 2014. 
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Haber, Karen (December 2001). "Shaun Tan: Out of Context". Locus (12). Retrieved 2007-07-25. 
  8. 1 2 "Shaun Tan", Visual arts requirements case studies, NSW HSC Online .
  9. Agent, AustLit .
  10. "Shaun Tan: Tales from Outer Suburbia", National Book Show, AU: ABC Radio, 29 May 2008 
  11. Shaun Tan: Solving the puzzle, AU: ABC, May 2005 .
  12. Shaun Tan Award for Young Artists .
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 "Science fiction awards database". 
  14. "Western Australian Premier's Book Awards – 2000 Shortlist". State Library of Western Australia. 
  15. 1 2 "Award Winners and Nominees". World Fantasy Convention. 2010. Retrieved 4 Feb 2011. 
  16. "World Fantasy Awards Winners", Locus Online News, November 2007 .
  17. "Palmarès Officiel 2008 Fauve D'Or: Prix du Meilleur Album" [Official 2008 Fauve D'Or trophy: Best album prize]. Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d'Angoulême (in French). Retrieved 2008-01-27. 
  18. "2008 Hugo Award Nomination list". Denvention. Retrieved 2008-03-29. 
  19. "Past Boston Globe – Horn Book Award Winners — The Horn Book". Retrieved 2016-04-21. 
  20. "2011 Hugo Award Winners". The Hugo Awards. Retrieved 27 August 2014. 
  21. "Tidigare mottagare". Peter Pan-priset (in Swedish). International Board on Books for Young People. Retrieved 27 August 2014. 
  22. "Past Boston Globe -- Horn Book Award Winners — The Horn Book". Retrieved 2016-04-21. 
  23. ↑ Queensland Performing Arts Centre Media Release
  24. 1 2 Australian Chamber Orchestra The Red Tree Accessed: 2008-05-29
  25. ↑ Lothian Books
  26. ↑ Jigsaw Theatre Company
  27. ↑ Homepage – The Arts Centre – the home of the performing arts in Melbourne
  28. "The Arrival – Red Leap Theatre". Australian Stage. 12 January 2009. Retrieved 12 January 2009. 
  29. "Orkestra of the Underground". 
  30. Shaun, Tan. "The Tea Party". Retrieved 6 September 2014. 


  • "About Shaun Tan" Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness Program Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • "About Our Authors and Illustrators". Lothian Books Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • Haber, K. (2001) "Shaun Tan: Out Of Context", Locus magazine Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • "Media Statement (2005)", Western Australia Department of Education and Training Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • "The Red Tree", Queensland Performing Arts Centre Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • "Shaun Tan Award For Young Artists", City of Subiaco Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • "Shaun Tan: Biography", Dreamstone Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • "Shaun puts students in the picture (2000)", The University of Melbourne Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • "Tan, Shaun", AustLit Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • Tan, S. (2001) "Originality and Creativity", AATE/ALEA Joint National Conference Retrieved 27 December 2005
  • Tan, S. (2001) "Picture Books: Who Are They For?", AATE/ALEA Joint National Conference Retrieved 27 December 2005

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Shaun Tan.

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