Tales from Outer Suburbia

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
Tales from Outer Suburbia Book Poster Image
15 surrealist tales by a master illustrator.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.


A reference to a man who has beaten his dog to death.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that there is little to be concerned with here, but that this strange collection of tales, though it looks like a picture book, is really aimed at teens. There's nothing much that's objectionable for younger readers, but they won't like it much unless they have a taste for the bizarre, ambiguous, and intellectually and emotionally complex.

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What's the story?

Fifteen profusely illustrated, very short, bizarre, and surrealistic stories set in the suburbs of Australia include a water buffalo who gives guidance to the neighborhood children, a giant ball of discarded poems rolling across the countryside, a dugong that mysteriously appears on the front lawn of a dysfunctional family, strange rituals for weddings and holidays, an amnesia machine, people made of sticks and grass who haunt the edges of society, and two brothers who go on a quest for the edge of the map.

Is it any good?

And now for something completely different -- again. With his previous book, The Arrival, author/illustrator created something new: a wordless graphic novel dense with visual metaphor. Now, with TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, he has created something else -- a collection of short, surrealist tales, as dependent on the illustrations as on the words to tell the stories. If you can image some of the stranger chapters in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine or The Illustrated Man, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, you begin to get the flavor of these brilliantly warped stories: something like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick marginally fleshed out.

Some of these stories have something to say, such as the tale of an America where everyone has a government missile placed in their backyards, which they eventually turn into planters and dog houses. Some are magical delights, such as the one about the enchanting gift left behind by an exchange student. And some are just ... peculiar. But all are fun, and will reward rereading, poring over the details in the illustrations, and long conversations about what they mean and what the author is up to. Clearly, they're not for everyone. But for a child with a taste for the bizarre, complex, and ambiguous, this is a very unusual treat.

From the Book:
If they are standing in the middle of the street, it's easy enough to drive around them, as you would a piece of card- board or a dead cat. Turning your sprinklers on will discourage them from hanging around the front of your house; loud music and smoke from barbecues will also keep them away. They are not a problem, just another part of the suburban landscape, their brittle legs moving as slowly as clouds. They have always been here, since before anyone remembers, since before the bush was cleared and all the houses were built. Adults pay them little attention. Young children sometimes dress them in old clothes and hats as if they were dolls or scarecrows, and are always scolded by parents, whose reasons are unclear. "Just don't," they say sternly.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about each story in detail. Both text and especially pictures reward careful and repeated scrutiny and discussion. For example, in the story "Eric," why is he drawn that way? Why is he that size? What are the questions he is asking? What are the peanuts all about? What is the gift that he left, and why is it so magical?

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