What happens when you give but don’t know how it is received?

posted in: Shaun Tan | 17

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:

  • The soundtrack to the film version of another Shaun Tan book, The Lost Thing. You can get a flavour it it here:
  • We also watched this video of a live orchestral performance to accompany another of Shaun Tan’s books, The Arrival. The score for this music is by Ben Walsh and The Orkestra of the Underground.
  • People are Strange by The Doors
  • Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday
  • Photo: steffenz

    Other activities we could have enjoyed alongside reading Eric include:

  • Sowing some seeds. If you’re in the northern hemisphere you can sow hardy annuals such as Sweet Peas now (though you may need to germinate them inside). As it happens we’ve planted some very special seeds this week, but you’ll have to wait till later in the week to find out about them…

  • Comparing different nuts. Of Eric, Shaun Tan says “It all started with looking at nuts and drawing them and thinking wouldn’t it be great to have an entire culture, a civilisation, based entirely around nuts and the sheer variety of different types of nut.” Nuts are hugely tactile and fun to explore their different textures, shapes and tastes. As a Christmas staple at least in the UK, you should be able to get hold of a mixed bag of nuts and then help your kids learn how to identify the different types of nuts.

  • Taking an object and exploring how it varies around the world. For example you could read A Ride on Mother’s Back by Emery Bernhard, all about different baby slings around the world. Come Home With Us by Annie Kubler and Caroline Formby explores different houses around the world and has the added bonus of flaps! My thanks go to @nurturestore, @seawooddesigns, @educhildworld, @pixiecake and @joannamarple for their helpful suggestions on twitter.

  • 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!

    17 Responses

    1. Clara

      This is a pocket-sized treasure of a post, too. I love the way in which you brought the touching, wonderful story of Eric into family life with so much creativity and thought. Wonderful!

      • Zoe

        Hi Clara, so kind of you to comment 🙂 All the play was kid-let – they just asked for me to cut out Eric and then help with the suitcases (which were a little bit fiddly – my tip is to use a saw to create little tracks at the bottom of the walnut for the string to sit in)

    2. Stacey

      So, so lovely!! Added to my list for sure! And I am inspired by the houses for Eric. My girls would love that idea.

      • Zoe

        Stacey, I think you’d really like the story of Eric! I hope you can find it in your library.

    3. Joanna

      I love the sound of this gentle story. Having lived in so many different nations, I know I need a lot of time to absorb and reflect on the experience!

      • Zoe

        Thanks Joanna for your help with book suggestions and for stopping by. Yes, those reflections can take years to settle, or at least in my experience.

    4. Library Mice

      Eric is a lovely, lovely book; I reviewed it when it first came out: http://www.librarymice.com/2010/05/eric.html

      As you can imagine, I was an exchange student a few times, but always here (in Dorset and Hampshire).
      The food was the most intriguing thing to start with, of course! I can still see myself, aged 14, sitting down on the banks of the Thames with my school friends, wondering what on earth my penfriend’s parents had given me for lunch … turned out to be a Scotch egg LOL.

    5. choxbox

      Wow. Adding to my ever-growing list.

      Have never been an exchange student, but have lived in different parts of the world, mostly on my own. So can sort of relate 🙂

      And Shaun Tan? Double wow!

    6. Zoe

      Thanks Library Mice for the link – yours is a great review. And yes, I can imagine being baffled by a scotch egg! Have you come to love them though?

      Hi Choxbox, think you’d really like this one given your experience of living in different countries 🙂

    7. jojoebi

      Ebi-kun was given this last Christmas and I was planning on doing a review, it is a lovely book, a firm favourite in our bedtime story pile

      • Zoe

        Do let me know if you do end up writing a review jojoebi, would love to hear what you and Ebi-kun think of it.

    8. Library Mice

      I turned vegetarian aged 17 and I am not a big fan of eggs so no, never learnt to love them LOL. Did you look up The Flower yet? Amazing book!

      • Zoe

        Yes, Melanie, I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list 🙂 Also saw a photo of it today in Tidy Books’ promotional literature!

    9. Zoe

      Thanks Yvonne, if you haven’t discovered Tan I think you’re in for a treat. He can be a bit of a slow burner – I know people who didn’t like him initially but now adore him. My favourite of his is The Arrival.

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