On Friday my mum lent us her copy of Eric by Shaun Tan. On Saturday there was a wonderful newspaper interview of Shaun Tan, an interview by Neil Gaiman, no less, where the two author’s discussed the genesis of Eric’s story. And then on Sunday all the girls (and I) wanted to do was play “Eric”.
Eric is a foreign exchange student who has come to stay. His host family do their best to make Eric feel welcome but they never feel quite sure that Eric is enjoying his stay with them. And then one day, “with little more than a wave and a polite goodbye” Eric departs. The host family feel uneasy and a little confused until they find the secret Eric has left behind, a secret that shows Eric has indeed had a wonderful time.
Tan’s moving, thoughtful story is funny and profound; we cannot know the seeds we are planting with our behaviour and actions. But Eric allows us to believe that if we give people the space and time they need, if we are kind and generous, beautiful things will grow.
Eric also reminds me that even if people appear unmoved, uninvolved, they are not without emotion and internal life. Indeed, in the Guardian interview, Tan admits that Eric is perhaps a little autobiographical in this regard:
As an adolescent people would always say I was not expressive and they always made the mistake of thinking that I didn’t feel anything, because I didn’t react to things. My mind reacts but usually a long time after the fact – if something exciting happens I’ll just sort of go “okaaaay, let me process that”, and then three days later I’m excited about it, when everyone else has left the room.
Eric is a treasure of a book, the perfect book to match with the Chinese saying “A book is like a garden carried in your pocket”. It does fit perfectly in a pocket (or a Christmas stocking) and encourages us reflect with curiosity and trust on cultural differences (a recurring theme in Tan’s work) and how, even if differences are initially confounding they enrich our world.
Playing “Eric” is a variant of a very popular game in our home, “Mummy knows nothing”. It’s a game in which M and J get to explain what everything and anything is, and how the world works. Eric / Mummy doesn’t know that that thing on the wall is a bookcase. They think it is a fridge. M and J get to be the clever ones and explain what it really is. Eric / Mummy thinks what M and J call a bed is actually a trampoline (where on earth would I get that idea from?), so the girls go into lots of detail describing how to use a bed.
M and J share this delight with the narrator of Eric:
Secretly I had been looking forward to having a foreign visitor – I had so many things to show him. For once I could be a local expert, a fountain of interesting facts and opinions.
Whilst we played, Eric got his own house…
…and of course he brought his suitcases (cf the first illustration from the book above).
Later one Eric moved to a new house…
…one with a garden he’d planted inspired by this one he left behind in the story:
Whilst we played we listened to:
Other activities we could have enjoyed alongside reading Eric include:
Were you ever an exchange student? What experiences were particularly intriguing? Just days after I’d arrived in Hungary for the first time, I was repeatedly called “Bimbo” by the grandfather of a friend. I was flummoxed, until I found out it means “Rosebud” in Hungarian and is used as a term of endearement!
**Thanks** Mum for lending us Eric!