What journeys led you here?

posted in: Shaun Tan | 7

This time of year is often a time for remembering the dead, whether it is through Halloween, the Day of the Dead, All Soul’s Day or Remembrance Sunday. And so I’ve been thinking about my family, in particular all those who came before and their contribution to the family I now have and love around me.

This week would have been the birthday of my Great-Great-Grandfather Cornelius. He emigrated from the Black Forest in Germany to England sometime in the 1870s and set up shop as a watchmaker and jeweller. In 1885 he married my Great-Great-Grandmother Adelheid, also an immigrant from the Black Forest and they went on to have 5 children.


I have often wondered what it was like for Cornelius and Adelheid leaving their home and setting up life in a new country, in a new language. However difficult it was, when the 1st World War broke out life became even harder; they were deemed enemy aliens, even though they had lived in this country more than half their lives and all their children had been born here and only spoke English. Cornelius, Adelheid and their youngest daughter were forced to return to Germany, following a great deal of persecution in the UK. Their eldest daughters (being of age) were permitted to stay here and I’m descended from one of them.


The experiences of Cornelius and his family give me a certain perspective on immigration and how we should treat people who often risk everything to try and start a better life for themselves. The experiences and feelings of a young Afghan man outside Calais are perhaps not so far removed from those that I imagine Cornelius had when he left the life he knew deep in the Black forest.

All this is a preamble to a book I discovered this summer called The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Although M has read through the book and appeared to enjoy it, this is not a book aimed at the youngest of children. Nevertheless I felt I simply had to review it here on Playing by the book as it has had such a big impact on me.

Coming South by Tom Roberts - one of Tan's visual inspirations
Coming South by Tom Roberts - one of Tan's visual inspirations

The Arrival tells the story of a young husband and father who emigrates to a new land in order to build a better life for his family. Tan’s exquisite story explores many aspects of what life can be like for a new arrival in a a foreign land – the almost never-ending possibilities for linguistic and cultural confusion, the need to re-learn even simple things such as how to prepare the native fruit and vegetables, how to buy a bus ticket or post a letter. The lead character in Tan’s story is helped by several generous residents in his new home city, each of whom turns out to be an immigrant themselves, with their own story to tell of what led them to this new land, stories all too often of horror and terror.

Helped by the kindness of others our new immigrant gradually settles in, finds a job and is able to save enough to pay for his wife and daughter to join him. One day the daughter goes shopping and she herself helps out another new arrival and thus one journey comes full circle as a new one is just beginning.


The Arrival has haunted and beguiled me since the day I first read it. I would go as far as to say I think it is a book that should be read by everyone at some point in their lifetime. Every re-reading makes me want to buy multiple copies to give to passing strangers (to say nothing of giving it to certain – if not all – politicians).

I personally believe the story and bearing witness to personal journeys of migration are important and valuable in and of themselves – but when it is done with such beauty, sensitivity, subtlety and creativity as Tan has done here, then the result is astonishing . Something, I suspect, will stay with you forever once you’ve read it – certainly that’s how it feels for me. Whilst The Arrival does not shy away from darker sides of humanity, it is ultimately a wonderful exposition of human kindness, warmth, generosity and about how braveness of spirit can conquer fear, terror and sorrow.

So yes, Tan’s story is one that needs to be told and heard. But in addition to this, Tan’s method for telling his story is worth commenting upon. This book contains no words, but over 800 drawings. They are wonderful in their detail – you can spend a long time exploring any one of his cityscapes – and also in their style – giving the impression often that they are old photographs, worn around the edges, gently creased through years of handling. Tan brilliantly and so creatively captures the alien-ness of everything; you look at an object and initially it could be familiar e.g. a car but then you realise in all its detail that car is actually different to any you’ve seen before.

Tan’s decision to tell this story wordlessly is utterly apt. Our immigrant is literally lost for words in his new land, and so – as readers – are we. Like the immigrant, communication for us can only take place through drawing images on paper, and so reading this story becomes an act of empathy.

Photo: Wagner T. Cassimiro
Photo: Wagner T. Cassimiro

One last word of praise for The Arrival should be reserved for the book’s binding. It is a hardback and has the look and feel of an old, much loved but battered leather notebook – the sort one might keep the most precious of memories in, and as such only adds to the splendour of this book I hope you one day get to read.


In response to this beautiful, haunting, moving book I finally got my act together to make a calendar of family dates, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, with the idea of reminding me about all the lives and personal journeys that have helped make me who I am, that have helped bring my family together; an expression of gratitude to all these people, to my family.

This project was relatively straightforward for me as I’ve been researching our family tree for some time now, and so had the dates and photos to hand. I created a simple undated calendar and filled in births, deaths and marriages for 6 generations (I chose this number as M and J have Great-grandparents still alive who remember their grandparents, and from M and J back to those relatives who are still in living memory you have 6 generations). Once photos were added, I exported the whole file as a pdf and took it to a local printers.

I got the calendar back today and I’m so pleased with the results!


The Arrival: *** (3 stars)

Whilst working on the perpetual calendar I listened to When a man’s a long way from home by Leadbelly (off a great album – “Leadbelly sings for children”) and Looking for a home by Pete Seeger. I’d also like to listen to Stranded in the USA: Early Songs of Emigration.

If you would like to create a similar calendar for your family you might be interested in

  • this photo calendar tutorial from about.com, or
  • this advice from Which about making a photo calendar

  • If you haven’t ever done any family history research I would definitely recommend it – you’ll uncover wonderful stories and great characters (to rival any book you’ve read!), and rather than focusing you on you own family to the exclusion of others, it will only serve to remind you how we’re all more alike in our humanity than unalike.

    GENUKI (UK and Ireland Genealogy) has a great introduction for new family historians, and Ancestry has a 14 day free trial to enable you to search historical documents for your relatives.

    Do you know of any other kids’ books which deal with emigration and immigration, or family history? Or what about funny or intriguing stories from your family’s past? Looking forward to hearing from you!

    7 Responses

    1. Ashley

      Oh this is a post very dear to my heart. I began researching my family tree about two years ago and it’s been the most fascinating hobby. I’ve created one large scrapbook on my fathers side and plan to start a second should I ever find time.
      Certain “characters” really came alive to me as I researched especially my great grandfather who had been a sea captain … I discovered he’d rescued a sinking Norwegian boat in a storm, it was all documented in the newspapers of the time (1900) and a painting was made depicting this which is now in a maritime museum. When my son unexpectedly came along this year I gave him his name.
      I found it an incredibly moving experience finding out about my family and would recommend it to anyone.
      Your calendar is beautiful and how wonderful that your daughters will have this and be able to see at a glance people dates and times! It’s just the most lovely idea.

    2. Janelle

      I’ve also researched our family history and have compiled a family tree. Several of my relatives also came from Germany, but emigrated to the US. Makes me ashamed of how much I take for granted when I look back at what they endured in searching for a better life. I like your calendar idea. That’s a unique way to keep track of everyone.

    3. Jude

      I did quite a bit of family history research many years ago as a student, in pre-computer days, when everything had to be done in the relevant record offices. I found it fascinating, and would love to do some more, but it is so time consuming. Also, I got a bit stuck on my father’s side – it becomes so much more difficult once you get back before the 19th century and the introduction of the census and registration. Still, I was lucky with my mother’s side, and managed to trace that back to the 15th century. Maybe I’ll do more again when kids are older!

    4. Ann Flynt

      What a wonderful, inspiring book! I am also interested in how people have the courage and tenacity to leave all they know behind and strike out for new lives in a not always welcoming country. I would love to read it. As a graduate students in special education, I would like to see this kind of book in every school library (at the very least), and impress upon students from the very young to those ready to leave high school to delve into their family lives (if they can) to learn about their family, but also to gain insight into themselves and their place in the world.

    5. sathish

      Zoe, That is an amazing review and your words say it aptly about this book –
      “The Arrival has haunted and beguiled me”.

      It has haunted me from the moment I read it. We had a lot of Tamil refugees next to our home and it always makes me think about them.

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