A lost album from another universe?

Who's it for?

Sharing with a group: 8+
Reading independently: 10+

About this book and why we've chosen it

Discovering another way to belong when you are far from home and everything is new and strange
This unusual picturebook invites us to explore a strange new world in the company of a migrant who must leave his family and everything he’s ever known to make a long and difficult journey to another land. 

The exhausted and bewildered traveller finds a room in a city where everything is different: language, buildings, customs, food… even the pets seem alien. Viewing this world through the traveller’s eyes, we are as confused as he is. But the city’s inhabitants have their own stories to tell and everyone helps out. By the time our traveller’s family is able to join him, we know that they’ll be safe and happy in this place.

The Arrival deals with some big questions about who we are, how we live our lives and what could be different. Because of this it appeals strongly to readers aged 12 plus, but older primary-age children also enjoy getting to know it and often respond to its themes with startling insight and maturity. By its nature the book invites a slow and thoughtful exploration – the lack of words is a stimulus for the reader to create multiple layers of stories and meanings. Every reader comes to The Arrival with a fresh mind and eyes, and finds the things that matter most to them.

Drawn in a series of fragmented visual sequences using a sepia palette that recalls old albums of family photographs, The Arrival is a deeply memorable and important book that inspires responses and opinions. It makes a great starting point for creative work as well as discussion and debate.

Shaun Tan is an award-winning writer, artist and animator. To find out more about his work, go to his website at www.shauntan.net/books where you'll find an article about the inspiration behind The Arrival and how he created the book. 

Sharing this book with a group

Before sharing this book, ask your students about their previous experiences with wordless picturebooks. How do they feel about 'reading' pictures rather than words? Can they share tips and insights? 

To set the scene before reading and prepare your students for some of the book's themes, invite students to explore a strange old suitcase full of intriguing clothes and objects. Who might have owned these items? Where could this person have been travelling, and why?

If your students had to leave their homes and travel to a distant place, what would they put in their own suitcase, and why? Which single object would they bring with them to remind them of home?

Once you’re ready to share the book, consider projecting the pages onto a big screen, so that everyone can see each image clearly. Or sit readers in small groups, each with a copy of the book, and take your time to explore the spreads. 

The Arrival can be shared in a slow and detailed way, or you can read for the story before going back and taking a more leisurely stroll through the pages. Each reading experience will give students something new to consider and change the way they think about what has already happened, so allow plenty of time for students to return to the book individually between group reading sessions. 

What is happening? Making sense of new experiences   Image copyright Shaun Tan for Hodder

Leave plenty of time, too, for discussing and interrogating this book as a group, so that everyone can learn from each other (like the inhabitants of Shaun Tan's city!) Focus on open-ended questions to encourage curiosity and lateral thinking - you could use a message board to collect thoughts, ideas and questions that come up during individual reading, then return to them during your shared sessions. 

Asking what can you see? What might be happening here? will give way to more abstract discussion as you progress. Why might this character have behaved like that? How does this image make you feel? What do you think Shaun Tan could have been thinking about when he drew this picture? 

To stimulate ideas and broaden discussion, you could try the following activities.

Step into the Picture

Choose a single image and ask your readers to imagine they’ve stepped into the world it portrays. What can they see? Smell? What do things feel like? If they’re outside, how warm is it? Is it windy? What can they hear? Are the characters talking to each other? What are they saying? How do the characters feel? If they could ask these characters a question, what would it be? What’s happening beyond the edges of this picture, out of view of readers but visible once they’ve stepped inside the book?


Ask your students to become picture detectives, on the lookout for clues. Share the hunt together as a group, or allocate one topic to each of several smaller groups and see what they come up with. Try looking for

  • Images of birds, and references to them (including egg-like objects and other suggestions of flight and fertility)
  • Strange, new creatures – animals and plants
  • Machines (what tasks are they accomplishing?)
  • Images of dining tables (where do we see them? Why?)
  • Examples of the unfamiliar language (what might each notice say?)
  • Radial patterns like a sunburst (used by Shaun Tan to suggest life, energy and new possibilities)

What next? Activities...

This city has an underpinning logic. Research the pictures to discover the rules behind the way it works.
What does a new arrival need to know? Ask readers to write an instruction manual to help travellers get around, buy food, deal with all the machines and other details of day-to-day life…

How do things in this new place work? What are the rules?     Image copyright Shaun Tan for Hodder

What does the traveller write on the origami bird? What does his daughter reply?
Fold origami birds and write messages on them to people you miss. Use the birds to create a mobile display.

Everyone has a story to tell about why they came to the city....     Image copyright Shaun Tan for Hodder

Look at the ‘stories within stories’ embedded in this book – you can identify them by their differently-coloured or patterned page surrounds – and create plot frameworks for each. In pairs, roleplay a TV interview with a character from one of these stories. Can the interviewer find sensitive ways to help their subject speak out? How does the interviewee feel about being put on the spot? What is OK to ask? What isn’t? Why? When should we interview people about trauma and when should we give them privacy? Use the experience and discussion to help you write different kinds of newspaper report.

Every character in this book has a complex tale to tell. Look carefully at the endpapers, where you'll find small passport-style images of faces. Use them to create profiles and back stories for each character. 

Click here to watch a video of Shaun Tan talking about the background characters, and how this city is made up of many immigrants, all of whom have suffered some kind of trauma and all of whom realise how important it is to support each other and ensure the city remains welcoming to strangers. 

Everyone has a story....   Image copyright Shaun Tan for Hodder


In the strange, new city, each household has its own companion animal. Ask students to create imaginary creatures by taking elements of existing creatures and blending them - Shaun Tan used this approach to help him create the traveller’s companion, which he described as mouse-like, dog-like, tadpole-like: even shark-like!

Using plasticine or a similar material, make models of your creatures. These will help students draw them accurately from different angles – another trick Shaun Tan uses to develop his work. 

Ask students to make their own books, detailing the life cycle of their imaginary creature: what it eats, where it lives, how to care for it, how it evolved…

Meeting his new companion           Image copyright Shaun Tan for Hodder

“Even the most anonymous character, in the strangest situation, is familiar to us if we are allowed to know his feelings, and so be invited to walk for a moment in his shoes” Shaun Tan

Make a collection of shoes, enough for everyone in your group. Working in a clear, open space, place each pair of shoes on a large sheet of paper. Ask readers to move around the room, looking at the shoes and writing questions on the paper for the imaginary owners of each pair of shoes.

Give each reader a pair of shoes, along with its accompanying sheet of paper, and ask them to invent a character who might have owned this pair of shoes. The questions asked by others will stimulate this process, but each participant is free to make up anything they wish. Ask them to decide how their character might stand, move and walk. Working in pairs, can they develop short monologues or mimes?

Write about your characters and how you discovered who they were.

Shaun Tan's imaginary city      Image copyright Shaun Tan for Hodder

While he was working on The Arrival Shaun Tan built a model city to help him visualise and draw its buildings and streets, and it’s a great way to stimulate creative thinking, discussion and writing with your group.

Collect packaging and other junk materials and use to create a cityscape of strange and wonderful buildings. Paint them white, so they’re uniform – you’ll see the underlying shapes more easily. Add blank windows and doors. Make plans of the city (from above) and draw elevations of its skyline (from the side). Experiment with desk lamps, to see how changes in light and shade alter the atmosphere in the city’s streets. If you like, you could add small-world models (lego people, playmobil etc) to help visualise the scale. Take photographs from different perspectives, including low angles looking up (another trick used by Shaun Tan – it makes the buildings seem enormous!) Use your experience and photographs to lead into creative writing. How does it feel to be alone in a strange and faceless city?

Now populate the city. Draw people and stick them to the windows, as if they’re looking out. Invent names for each building and street. Make model people, and invent stories about them. What are they doing? Where are they going? Who will they see? 

This time, draw maps, instead of plans, full of details about the city and its inhabitants. 

Find out about the journeys made by students in your group (include holidays, house moves, family visits...) Who has lived elsewhere before coming to your town? Talk about your journeys and your memories of other places, then mark them on a map.

What have you learned about migration and refugees from TV and other media? Do you think everything you see and hear is true? Why /why not? What can you do about it?

Do you know anyone who’d be willing to come and talk to your group about their experiences of leaving home and travelling to a new place?

Who is working with refugees and migrants locally and nationally? What could you do to help?

A long and lonely journey        Image copyright Shaun Tan for Hodder

Choose a spread with plenty of characters. In each frame, decide what characters are thinking or saying. Write their words or thoughts on a post-it and stick it next to the character.
Use the post-its to kickstart a film or TV script, including instructions on how each scene is to be shot (think about props, costumes, lighting…)
Or freezeframe your image, trying to capture body postures and facial expressions from the original picture. Then bring your freezframe to life with dialogue.

What are they thinking or saying?       Image copyright Shaun Tan for Hodder

If you liked this, try...

Sketches from a Nameless Land by Shaun Tan, published by Hodder 
A companion volume to The Arrival, it includes preliminary sketches, research materials and Tan’s commentary on his working process 

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan, published by Hodder 
More strangely surreal goings-on in odd, urban landscapes

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest and PJ Lynch, published by Walker Books 
Sumptuously-illustrated historical tale of US immigrants. Includes artwork showing a historically-accurate arrival into New York that makes a great comparison with similar spreads in The Arrival 

Eric by Shaun Tan, published by Allen and Unwin 
An illustrated short story in mini-format telling the story of Eric, an unusual exchange student, and the efforts made to understand him

The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, published by Nosy Crow 
A picturebook about empathy and kindness to strangers. Aimed at younger readers, but has plenty to offer older readers as part of an extended discussion about migration /commonalities and differences / how we should behave towards each other

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce, published by Walker Books 
A thought-provoking story about a girl and her refugee friend from Mongolia

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf, published by Orion Told from the point of view of a child who wants to help a refugee classmate, this illustrated novel makes important points in an enjoyable and accessible way for middle-grade readers

Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano, published by Hodder 
A powerful graphic novel for older readers about one boy’s epic journey from Africa to Europe

Adopt a Glurb by Elise Gravel, published by Blue Apple Books in their Balloon Toons Early Readers series 
An imaginative romp through the delights and responsibilities of pet ownership. Aimed at younger readers but makes a fun prompt if you’re writing about imaginary Arrival-style creatures

The Island by Armin Greder, published by Allen and Unwin 
A bleak and uncompromising picturebook for readers of 10+ about a vulnerable man on a raft who is badly treated when he is washed ashore on an island. There’s lots of discuss here, especially if you compare the sailor’s experience to that of the migrant in The Arrival

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, published by Vintage Classics 
A classic novel for adults written in the form of short texts in which Marco Polo describes a series of magically unexpected cities. Share and discuss some of the descriptions with older students to extend their Arrivalexperience and inspire their own creative writing / artwork

If you'd like to buy books featured on this website, please visit the Cast of Thousands bookshop at uk.bookshop.org

You'll find The Arrival and lots more on our Migration: finding a new home booklist, to view it click HERE

Cast of Thousands receives a small commission on every purchase, helping us stay independent and freely accessible for everyone

To find out more about Shaun Tan on his website click here 

To read an article by Shaun Tan about The Arrival and his working process, click here and then click on the front cover of The Arrival

Shaun Tan was part of the team working on the film version of his picturebook The Lost Thing, which won an Oscar for best short animated film at the 83rd Academy Awards. To find out more, click here then click on the front cover of The Lost Thing

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Teach Primary Magazine in 2012
You can find out more about Teach Primary Magazine on their website here  

Copyright: Cast of Thousands 2024 All rights reserved.
This article/information may be printed freely for use in schools and other learning settings but may not be reproduced in any other format without the permission of Cast of Thousands


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