The Arrival – a graphic novel with endless possibilities

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The Arrival by Shaun Tan is an extraordinary book. It’s a truly graphic novel because it has no words at all. It could be used to teach any language, even Latin. I’ve been using it to teach English as a Foreign Language for years with different levels of students. It’s my “entry test”.  When I have a new student I open the book and we start discussing the pictures. What is that? Where is it? Is it old or new? Is the family poor or rich? Is the teapot full or empty? Very quickly I have a good idea of my student’s level in English and I can decide how I want our lessons to continue.

This year I have a group of “beginner” adults. (I’ve decided that when a French person asks to be put in the beginner group, it means they are not advanced. Most French adults have learned traditionally and feel inadequate in any situation where they might have to speak English.) I knew that I would have mixed levels and that I was free to design the course as I pleased. Another English teacher in the organization is doing “communicative” teaching with grammar explanations, etc. I described my course as learning through stories and reading. I decided that our “course book” would be The Arrival.

I have scanned the book and have it on a flash drive. So I can project the pictures of the pages on a screen while we describe them and talk about them. I have asked past students to write descriptions or summaries about the pictures which I have edited to be able to use as readings for new students.

Shaun Tan is an artist who also writes whimsical stories. Son of an immigrant to Australia, his masterpiece tells the story of a man who leaves his family to go to a new country, hoping to be able to bring them later. The cover of the book shows him carrying a large and battered suitcase and staring at a very strange animal, some kind of cross between a fish, a mouse, a reptile and a dog. Everything is very strange and unexpected in the new country and he has many misadventures because he doesn’t understand the language very well and is not used to the customs and strange machines. Most people consider it a science fiction story, but actually, I suspect Shaun Tan is helping us to better understand the immigrant’s experience in an unfamiliar country.

The first page of the book has nine individual pictures that seem to have little or no relationship. There’s an origami, a paper bird, an old clock, a hat, a cooking pot, a child’s drawing, a teapot, a cup of tea, a suitcase full of clothes and a family picture of a man, his wife and their daughter. I can usually take at least fifteen minutes to discuss these pictures with my students. Then I turn the page, being careful, if I’m using the actual book, not to let them see the third page.  Here is a view of the second page:

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We describe the action in each picture. When we get to the last picture of two hands, I ask if the hands are the same. It’s interesting to see who catches on to the fact that one hand is larger than the other. We understand that one is a woman’s hand and the other is a man’s hand. Then I show them the image of page three where everything comes together.

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We look for the paper bird, the old clock, etc. After we have located all the objects seen on the first page, I ask questions about the scene. Do the people look happy? What time is it? Is it morning or night? Where is the little girl?

Page four shows the little girl waking up, having breakfast and leaving the house with her parents. We see the shadow of a monster’s tail on the building. Then we see that the monster is everywhere in the city. The family goes to the train station where other people are waiting. The father says good-bye and gets on the train alone. Finally we see the mother and daughter returning home in the monster infested town.  It usually takes an hour to “read” the pictures and finish the first chapter. I give the students a text to read or ask them to write their own, depending on their level.

Here is a text which I have “edited”in order to target some typical difficulties that the French have with English, such as his hand/her hand :

“It’s the story of a family with a man, a woman and a little girl.  The man and the woman are preparing a suitcase while the little girl is sleeping.  They are packing the suitcase. The man’s hand is on the suitcase. His big hand is on the suitcase. The woman’s hand is on the suitcase. Her little hand is on the suitcase. In their house we can see a paper bird, an old clock and a teapot on the table.  After a few minutes the little girl wakes up and goes to her parents to drink tea.  She looks at the suitcase. Everybody prepares to leave the house.  The man puts on his hat. The little girl puts on her hat.

“When they leave their house, there is a strange creature which can represent a danger.  This strange creature is everywhere in the city.  When they arrive at the train station, there are other people who are waiting for the train.  The man gives the paper bird to the little girl.  He kisses his wife and talks to her because she is crying. After that, he leaves his family to get on the train.  The train goes away with the man. The woman and the little girl go back home in the night.”

After the first lesson with The Arrival, I decide if I want to continue with the book or if I think the student’s level and interests would be better served by something else. With my group of adult beginners, we went through the book, picture by picture, chapter by chapter. The second chapter is long and usually takes two classes to get through. Each lesson gives us a lot of discussion during the  class followed by a text to read, either at home or in class. I often have more than one text which they can compare. I always ask the students to give their own name to the different characters. In the book as the main character meets other immigrants, they tell him their stories, so there is often a story in the story, which we “read” and discuss before composing our own text.

This worked very well with my beginners because of the built in repetition of key words. First we discussed the image, then either read a text about the episode or composed our own, which the students then reread at home. I love the freedom this gives me to meet my students where they are and adapt what I can say about the images to their particular needs.

P.S. We have now finished the book. I think that we can begin looking at a film such as “The Mighty” or “The Black Stallion” now. In many ways our classes will be similar since I will not be using the sound track at first. We will watch a scene and then discuss it and compose our own text before I let them start reading the subtitles in English.

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