Eric by Shaun Tan
Allen & Unwin 2020. ISBN: 9781760877972.
(Age: All) Highly recommended. Told from the perspective of a child welcoming an exchange student into his home, this story reveals the levels of misunderstanding that exist between people. Tan explores the efforts made on both sides to communicate, cooperate and find common ground, but all to no avail.
The family cannot pronounce his name so call him Eric. He prefers to sleep in the pantry, a cultural thing, says Mum, despite the family having prepared a room for him with new furniture and rugs. The boy takes him places, showing him things that he sees as important or interesting to an exchange student, but the newcomer sees different things, picking up small objects he spies on the ground, collecting things that seem to be of no value to his host.
It is only when Eric has left that the family opens the pantry and see what he has left them: reminders of all he saw, the little things he valued during his stay with the family, things they overlooked and saw as having no value. A reminder that we should not dismiss the things that someone else values, that communication is the basis of understanding, not assumptions or preconceived ideas.
Eric was first included in Tan's Tales from outer suburbia (2009), then published as a small single volume in 2015. And at a time when people need to be encouraged to remember that while we may be different we have far more in common, this new publication is most opportune.
A tale of missed opportunities, of neglecting to open one's eyes to what is in front of them, of seeing things when it is too late, Eric calls out for people to be more responsive, to take note, to be aware.
Tan's illustrations are full of poignant moments, as the boy and the exchange student move together, but apart. Using pencil and collage he creates tender scenes out of very little: the student buckled into his car seat, small and bewildered; picking up the scraps from the ground, interested and questioning but receiving little response; trying to make sense of the world he is living in - checking out the power plug, the cereal packet, the stamp, the plug hole. All the differences he spots are indecipherable, making his gift when he leaves all the more arresting in his attempt to communicate what his stay meant to him.
Themes: Communication, Difference, Fear, Xenophobia, Prejudice, Assumptions.