Showing the Indelible, Imperiled Bonds Between Animals and People

When Shaun Tan won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 2008 for “The Arrival,” the judges despaired of figuring out a category (picture book? fiction?) for its 128 wordless pages of sepia images. They awarded it a “special citation,” affirming its general weirdness and the genre-busting nature of its format, but mainly its remarkable, metaphor-made-concrete evocation of the stranger in a strange land, a man negotiating a new landscape, new people, new pets, all without the benefit of knowing the language.

What’s it like to be plunked down in a world of general weirdness? That’s the question that drives the Australian author-illustrator Tan, who in 2011 won the lucrative (500,000 euros!) international Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. He asks the question soberly, laconically, in TALES FROM THE INNER CITY (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 219 pp., $24.99; ages 10 and up), a collection of 25 illustrated prose poems and short stories about the relations of animals and people. In “Shark” — the table of contents page is simply a spread of animal silhouettes with numbers on them, so I’m approximating here — the townspeople have gathered in celebration of the capture and slaughter of their monstrous finned foe, only to discover that each slice of the fisherman’s blade reveals more sharks, “spilling out like Russian dolls, smaller and smaller, hundreds, thousands, each unborn generation as fresh and blue as water before they rolled out into the blood and gore of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.” “Moonfish” imagines a dystopia in which the only unpolluted-enough element left for the fish is the sky. “Lungfish” portrays the species evolving to colonize a city in a way its human inhabitants never quite managed. While all the scenarios are original and vivid, the stories tend toward the brief and cryptic (one is about giant snails found “making love right then and there” in the streets) or the overlong and overwritten (some of the sentences in “Shark” clock in at more than 75 words). But the prose isn’t why you’re here.

What you came for are the pictures. Each story gets at least one, a wordless, full-bleed double-page spread that illustrates, extravagantly, either a large motif or an offhand moment from its story in richly textured paint. Those snails kiss under the noir glow of sodium vapor streetlights while a hooded guitarist serenades them from the subway below. A sweet (if wordy) tale of the death of a beloved cat shows him giant-size, carrying his vulnerable human family between his ears as he keeps them afloat in a raging sea. A tormented young genius dreams only of hippos; the pictured hippo shifts from our-world gray to all the colors of the universe in the boy’s imagination.

The centerpiece of the collection (at least, for the dog lovers among us) is a prose poem dramatized by 13 paintings of dog-and-human pairs, meditating on the dependence that grew between the species in prehistory and into modern times, the I-thou bond of each pair a constant: “One day I threw my stick at you. / You brought it back. / My hand touched your ear. / Your nose touched the back of my knee.” In the first painting in the sequence, a man with a spear faces a gray dog across a wide diagonal void; as the pages continue, the man and dog walk together, the void becomes a river, a road, a forest, battlefield, a highway, the man becomes a woman, a soldier, a different woman, and the dog changes breeds, any- and everydog, a dog for all times and seasons. It’s a tour de force. The poem, as throughout the volume, gets world-weary (“It feels like time is only ever running away from us”) in a way that perhaps doesn’t speak directly to the children and teenagers who will be drawn to the pictures. But what pictures they are, each one in this book — horses at the end of the freeway, an orca plane-high above the sprawling city lights — an invitation to tell a story to yourself. Do.

Roger Sutton is the editor in chief of The Horn Book.

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