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Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

Tan, Shaun (2009). Tales from Outer Suburbia. New York: Scholastic. 96 pages.

If you know anything about my short stint in the world of children’s literature, you may know that I have two loves: Harry Potter and Shaun Tan. (You also know I would accept marriage proposals from either whether imaginary or not.) Tales from Outer Suburbia is not an exception to this general rule. A collection of 15 illustrated short stories, this picturebook is usually shelved with children’s picturebooks. Ideally, such a book would rest in its home in the YA section of bookstores and libraries. The stories in this collection range from buffalos dwelling in abandoned lots to magical courtyards inside every suburban home to very persecuted stick men. There is not necessarily an over-arching storyline, but instead, small narratives–with pictures!–about various fantastical elements of the Australian suburban neighborhoods.

Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of “what if” or “it could be” stories that places it into the fantasy genre. While most picturebooks for children could technically be considered fantasy–Angelina Ballerina is a mouse and mice realistically cannot perform ballet–the nature of Tan’s stories pushes it into the realm of YA fantasy. Many of the stories feel odd and are even framed as story being told by a character, or in the case of “The Amnesia Machine”, the story is presented as a newspaper article, which can reasonably be argued into the science fiction realm. Indeed, much of Tan’s work hovers of the edge of dystopia, dabbling both in fantasy and science fiction. I recognize that many will take fault with the ease I cross between science fiction and fantasy as some camps do not like them intermingled; yet if any individual could create peace between the fantasy and sci-fi arguments, my faith is in Shaun Tan. He mixes the fantastic such as the magical courtyard in “No Other Country” with the science fictive elements of backyard missiles in “Alert but Not Alarmed”. Shaun Tan’s other works have these genres and often a feel of magical realism such as in The Lost Thing and the graphic novel The Arrival.

Because teenagers maybe reluctant to puruse a picturebook, thinking that they are the domain of younger children, I think it is important to emphasize the complexity of Shaun Tan’s work. The illustrations read as much of the story as the words. I think that the best way to introduce Tales from Outer Suburbia is to present some of the illustrations via a presentation tool or projection. The spread over pages 18-19 is particularly detailed and dynamic as is the illustration on page 93. To accompany the illustration on page 93, reading the complete story of “Night of the Turtle Rescue” would be a great hook for teenagers. (The story is only a paragraph and VERY open-ended).

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Mockingjay (Hunger Games #3) by Suzanne Collins

Collins, Suzanne (2010). Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic.

I was counting the days for Mockingjay‘s release. Katniss captured my attention in Hunger Games, and failed to relinquish her hold into Catching Fire. So naturally, I reread the first two books of the trilogy in the days prior to the final book’s release. Katniss’ naivete of her desirability, of her survival skills make her an engaging heroine. Katniss has unwittingly stood against the Capitol, not once, but twice and finds herself in the mythical District 13. I knew reentering Katniss’ world that Panem was on the brink of revolution, and Katniss’ involvement as the “mockingjay” and the face of the revolution would play into the trilogy’s resolution. Katniss becomes a pawn in District 13’s revolution against the Capitol, just as she was a pawn for the Capitol in the games. It is her headstrong and heartstrong instinct for survival that motivates her to take further action against both. Despite District 13’s effort merely to use Katniss as a rallying point and symbol, Katniss pushes herself into the action of the rebels against Panem which leads her to the Capitol’s defenses. Rigged like the games using the most advanced technology, Katniss and a group of rebels breach the defenses, but the outcome means more than just the lives of the players, but the lives of all in Panem.

Following  two very successful–and in my opinion unpredictable–novels Mockingjay felt rushed, chaotic and somewhat lacking. Katniss’ character remained consistent and the development of the other characters was authentic and realistic. Katniss’ younger sister Prim, grew from a little girl to be protected into an independent young woman with a purpose. Peeta faced torture and mind-control, making his gallant-can-do-no-wrong characterization much more interesting and developed. On the other hand, Gale’s character and his love for Katniss feel ambivalent and his decisions at the end of the novel feel contrived in order to create a sense of stability for Katniss.

The battle scenes and outwitting of the game-like elements surrounding the Capitol is an inventive way to bring the Games into all three novels; however, the descriptions of the ensuing battles were chaotic, disjointed and not easy to follow. I had to reread passages in order to follow the action descriptions.  Yet the world that Suzanne Collins created is one that seems plausible in the future with a strong government’s ability to develop and use advanced technology, while repressing citizens into poverty in order to keep them subordinate.  This contrasts with the dystopia created by Scott Westerfeld in his “Uglies Trilogy” (which is really four books) where the citizens are able to obtain any luxury and access technology with a virtual system of popularity and community service currency. Plus, once sixteen, all citizens become “pretty” and can get anything they want. Both Collins’ and Westerfeld’s dystopias have strong female heroines who both falter due to a warped friend-boyfriend-heroine love triangle. Why can’t a strong female protagonist exist without being motivated by a male?

Because of the themes and popularity of dystopian novels, hooking readers into this world is easy as showing the book trailer below. Or a read-aloud from pages 213 until 217, which ends with the words “Instead, i watch myself get shot on television.”

A homemade book trailer for Mockingjay:

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