Love that Book: The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2006)

    Published: 30 August 2019
    Cover image of Shaun Tan's The Arrival


    Love This Book because…..

    ‘Love is in the air, everywhere I look around
    Love is in the air, every sight and every sound
    And I don't know if I'm being foolish
    Don't know if I'm being wise
    But it's something that I must believe in
    And it's there when I look in your eyes’

    John Paul Young 1977

    If you feel a tad bemused please do continue to read and all will become clear! However, please do remember the theme of love. 

    The inspiration for choosing this book comes from a school that I have worked with for approximately three to four years. It is a fitting choice should you wish to mark a theme of ‘new beginnings’ during the start of a new academic year with your class. A while back, I was visiting the school and the head teacher and I conducted a learning walk to seek all of the good evidence to celebrate in order to inform a staff meeting that I was planning with them during the first part of the autumn term. A big task when you are aiming to be specific and include the needs of all year groups, as I am sure you will appreciate. However, I always like to begin school based CPD sessions by celebrating what is going well.

    As the head teacher whisked me through the hall, I was struck by the consistent theme of writing displays from across the school. I stopped and digested what was on offer and was amazed at how each class had responded, through writing, to this beautifully illustrated picture book/graphic novel – ‘The Arrival by Shaun Tan.’  The memory of spinning around and looking at the amount of writing and drawings stimulated from a picture book/graphic novel has stayed with me and my only regret was not having the time to delve deeper into how each class had responded to the book.

    We then proceeded to classrooms only to find that KS2, in particular, had broadened the theme and the reading and writing displays extended to research about ‘HMS Windrush’ and the experiences of the new arrivals then.

    Black and White photo of HMS Windrush

    ‘Those arriving in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries have been labelled the Windrush generation.

    This is a reference to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands, as a response to post-war labour shortages in the UK.

    The ship carried 492 passengers - many of them children.’

    Read more here.

    I didn’t need to ask the school their reason or rationale for choosing the text or extended themes. It was completely obvious to me. The school is one of the most culturally diverse schools in which I work and I expect that some of the pupils have found themselves here or there because of migration, mixed culture/race marriages and partnerships. Some may have experienced change due to conflict and some may be learning to gain a sense of their own identity. My guess is that quite a few children experience a general displacement from an understanding of their heritage. It is increasingly difficult to know currently if we are even using the most politically correct terminology to describe culture, race and diversity. I really wouldn’t worry too much as this is sometimes why, I think, we might avoid addressing diversity and related themes in the classroom. We don’t want to get it wrong and we certainly do not want to aggravate any negative experiences or emotions. During my adult life, I have been corrected many times as to the terminology that I use to describe ethnic origins. If I have missed something, I am more than happy to let someone….anyone keep me informed.

    Anyway, moving on, the ‘Purpose of Study’ for History within the primary national curriculum (2014) states:

    Purpose of study

    A high-quality history education will help pupils gain a coherent knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past and that of the wider world. It should inspire pupils’ curiosity to know more about the past. Teaching should equip pupils to ask perceptive questions, think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement. History helps pupils to understand the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time.

    I’d like to repeat this part:

    ‘….the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time.’

    How fitting then that we gain confidence from this and divert our attention to the theme of other experiences of migration. Not only is it relevant from an historical perspective but, by doing so, we are giving children the opportunity to also talk about ‘a situation that is happening right now’. This latter quote comes from ‘The War Cry’ (Salvation Army No. 7381) which I happened to pick up during a recent shopping trip. To be honest I was drawn to the two volunteers who were selling the magazine because a friend of mine recommended their family tracing service, having recently met his father for the first time at the age of 47. I am about to embark on a similar journey as, like my friend, I feel a sense of displacement from a heritage that I have never experienced. The only tangible knowledge that we both take comfort in is that our fathers arrived in the UK due to migration, prompted by the prospect of employment and a better life. I am sure that that there are many people out there who are in a similar position to us and I know that I have come across many, many children over the course of my career who are learning to make sense of their own identity within an increasingly ‘mixed’ heritage society.

    Shaun Tan expertly handles any sensitivities surrounding the migration of refugees through his use of surreal imagery, which helps anyone to detach himself or herself from the stark reality of what is happening today. I like to call this a ‘distancing’ technique as it enables children to empathise with an issue, but at the same time disassociate themselves from it. Conversation and opinions often flow better as a result.

    Here is my attempt at making this wonderfully admired book accessible to all age groups. Before I do, can I just share this quote from ‘The War Cry’ (Salvation Army No. 7381)   – an article that is promoting a West End play ‘The Jungle’:

    ‘This is the first time in my working life when I had a story that was genuinely necessary to tell. I’d never come across a story that has the same urgency – it is talking about a situation that is happening in the world right now. There are still refugees in Calais and in northern France.’

    Alex Lawther

    I hope to do ‘The Arrival’ justice but am still humbled by my visit to the school that day and in returning to the lyrics at the top of this blog, I hope that you too will experience the same sense of love and care that has been masterfully created by Shaun Tan. The apparent love and loss of love (temporary though it may be) within the characters’ eyes and facial expressions carry the story. The impact is immense!

    Let us see how well the National Curriculum can meet the demands of this book!

    Year group NC statement Opportunities for exploration in the text

    Being encouraged to link what they read or hear read to their own experience.


    Discuss the significance of the title and events


    Joining words and joining clauses using ‘and’

    Model/articulate the feelings associated with arriving/going somewhere new: school, class, location, hospital etc. I would provide plenty of examples for the children to include as many first time experiences as possible. Ask the children to think about arriving in your class for the first time for example or another immediate experience. Can they recall any of the vocabulary that you used to say how they felt at the time? Freeze frame facial expressions for the children. Ask them to copy you.  Take a look at the front cover of ‘The Arrival’ and explore the scene building upon the theme.

    Bring in a treasured, ‘much loved’ item of your own and share your feelings about it with the children. Ask them to share examples of something/object/toy that they love and encourage children to articulate why they love it using ‘and’.

    Model writing their ideas in preparation for a writing task.

    Refer back to your object and tell the children that they are going to look at some pictures of much loved objects (first page of ‘The Arrival’). Support the children in discussing the images and linking them to their own experiences where appropriate. Refer to the images within the text that capture the imminent departure of the main character – packing of the suitcase. Point out how he is taking his most treasured possession. Can the children say why he is taking it?

    write simple, coherent narratives about personal experiences and those of others (real or fictional)

    use co-ordination (e.g. or / and / but) and some subordination (e.g. when / if / that / because) to join clauses

    Building upon ideas from Year 1, use personal ‘loved’ objects to recount the ‘narrative’ around it. Extend your verbal sentences using conjunctions. If another adult is available ask them to write a list of the conjunctions that you use as you verbalise the sentences Tell the children the ‘story’ of your object:

    • How/where it came from
    • Who gave it to you (if relevant)
    • A description of it
    • Your feelings associated with receiving it, concluding with how you would feel if you ever lost it/broke it etc.

    Children to use talk partners to verbalise their sentences using selected conjunctions. As they share them, begin a tally showing the most popular conjunctions used. Challenge the children to provide a sentence using the least used conjunctions. This can provide a good prompt for a subsequent writing task.

    Children to write the ‘story’ surrounding their much-loved object.

    Introduce the ‘The Arrival’ to the children and enlarge the picture of the central characters/family. Use this as an improvised introduction to the story:

    A long time ago there was….

    There was once a family who owned…….

    These objects were….

    Continue to narrate the early stages of the story for the children. Pause intermittently to allow them to practice using authorial voice in preparation for writing a simple narrative.

    Don’t miss the opportunity to model some of the Year 2 common exception words within your retelling.


    Identify themes and conventions in a wide range of books


    Use of the present perfect form of verbs instead of the simple past


    Introduction to paragraphs as a way to group related material.

    Use this link from ‘Action Aid’ to explore Hamam’s story to introduce the theme of migration….refugees. It is particularly suitable for this age group as it balances tragedy with positivity.

    This will provide the children with some current and relevant knowledge that they can bring to their exploration of ‘The Arrival’. This is particularly relevant as there are some foreboding images as the main family walk through the streets and this prior knowledge will help to give them clues as to why the main character is leaving his home.

    The above resource link provides a useful template/planner – ‘Map Hammam’s Story’ for you use and then to adapt using one of the main characters in the text. ‘The Arrival’ is a long and complex text so you will need to decide how much of the text you will use to piece together a sequence of events/group related material.

    Eventually, this will provide a good starting point for the children to tell the story of one of the main characters.

    For example:

    The girl has pulled the blanket over her face. The shadows outside have scared her and she is worried that they have become bigger.


    Identify themes and conventions in a wide range of books

    Fronted adverbials (for example, Later that day, I heard the bad news)

    Explore part one and two of the text with the children up to the point where Tan cleverly builds our understanding of the scale of migration taking place. One porthole turns into three, then thirteen until we view the whole side of the ship.

    Use ‘What can you see?’ images from the KS1 and KS2 Refugee crisis resources here. A particular photograph will support you in engaging in a real life discussion about a group of refugees getting off a dinghy that has landed at a beach in Lesvos, Greece:

    Lesvos refugees

    Compare this to the drawings within ‘The Arrival’ that depict the characters arriving on a ship to a new land. You can extend research of the theme by comparing it to images of

    Ellis Island arrival hall where Tan has sought inspiration from:

    Ellis Island Hall

    Write a recount of events, adopting the role of the main character.

     Some ideas to get you started:

     Eventually, we set sail and my thoughts turned to….

    In the distance, I could see my homeland…..

    All of a sudden, I felt……..

    Later that day, the sky seemed to fill with a dark grey smog and there was an eerie silence on board.


    Predicting what might happen from details stated and implied.


    Identifying the audience for and purpose of the writing, selecting the appropriate form.


    Indicating degrees of possibility using adverbs (for example, perhaps, surely) or modal verbs (for example, might, should, will, must)

    Approximately half way into Part Three, the main character meets a child and his father who offer welcoming gestures and a sense of kindness. We begin to feel a sense of relief for the main character as he increasingly begins to make sense of his new experiences. We can assume that the characters are communicating using gesticulation. This offers a great opportunity for the children to predict their conversation.

    Get into role as the characters, predicting their conversation.

    Model how to include the use of modal verbs to indicate degrees of possibility.

    Write a dialogue or play script between the characters.

    ‘Excuse me, perhaps you could help me to identify strange creature. They appear to be everywhere and are extremely popular amongst the locals’

    Of course, let me call my father. He breeds these animals and will explain everything to you.’

     ‘Greetings sir. Firstly, let me explain how to handle these creatures should you happen to come across one.’

     ‘I would rather not touch them to be honest as they appear to change into something completely different when I do.’

     ‘I must admit, they can appear to feel strange to touch but try and be brave. They could help to save your life one day’.

    And so on….


    The difference between structures typical of informal speech and structures appropriate for formal speech and writing(for example, the use of subjunctive forms such as If I were or Were they to come in some very formal writing and speech)

    Choose one or more of the following scenes:

    • The ship arriving
    • The giant statues shaking hands
    • An official advising the new arrivals through a megaphone
    •  The arrival hall
    • The hands of a (presumed) clerk typing information and verifying the main character’s credentials.

    Imagine the new arrivals receiving advice/information through some form of loudspeaker/public address system. What advice/information might they be receiving? You may need to continue with the text before agreeing this, as the children would need more knowledge about the new land/country.

    Although the images are somewhat surreal, particularly from the point of the ship arriving, Tan manages to juxtapose this with a sense of the past.

    We do not see the face of the character typing so discuss clues that help us to get a sense of the historical context of the text such as the typewriter, the writing tools etc. This adds to the formality of the situation. Propose the idea that this character is offering advice as he types and writes. The following sentence stems could be used:

    If I were you….                                      I suggest that you…..

    If I were in your position                        If you were to…..

    You will be reassured to…          

     It has been suggested that….

    It is important to be aware of…..

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