Eric is a miniature, post-modern picture book by Australian author illustrator Shaun Tan. This simple story says big things about cultural difference.
NOTES ON THE COVER OF ERIC
Eric’s cover is inviting; the embossed title and author are both prominently displayed, taking about a third of the already small space. Yet even here there is playfulness and subversion. There is no capitalisation on the page, and the dot of the ‘i’ in ‘eric’ has been displaced, appearing slightly to the left above the ‘r.’ Already, we have the implication that not all the rules will obeyed, and that Eric himself is a little different. This idea is reinforced by the image on the cover. Against the mottled green background suggestive of Eric’s jungle origins, Eric peeps up, dominating the lower half of the spread whilst remaining intriguing and inviting the reader to look further.
A similar cover layout is used on the Judy Moody covers by Megan McDonald:
Another author whose books often avoid adult-like punctuation such as capitalisation is Lauren Child, whose own name is known for being lower case, like bell hooks
For artists who eschew capitalisation of their names, it’s usually because they are making a statement against prescriptivism, and the rules set down by adults. The practice may also symbolise rejection of the ego.
Only in picture books do you regularly find the size and shape of the book itself has something to do with the content. This green version of Eric is only about as big as your hand.
Why is the exchange student in this story small? As explained by John Truby in Anatomy of Story:
Whenever a character shrinks, he regresses to a small child. Negatively, he experiences a sudden loss of power and may even be terrified by his now massive and domineering surroundings. Positively, the character and the audience have the amazing feeling of seeing the world anew. “The man with the magnifying glass is … youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of the child … . Thus the minuscule, the narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”
Notice the peanut: Eric uses a peanut for suitcases. We see the peanut again at the end of the story, with a single peanut on a dinner plate. Surely the family isn’t suddenly eating peanuts for dinner? What is the significance of this?
Since the peanut was used as a suitcase, the peanut now stands in for travel and foreignness. The family’s own dinner may now feel foreign to them, now that they’ve had a glimpse of another culture. The peanut is of course used commonly in the West to symbolise the miniature, further linking the peanut to Eric. When set upon a dinner plate, its small size is emphasised. I don’t believe the family is really eating a peanut for dinner. I believe the peanut is just a symbol.
Eric is included in the (full size) Shaun Tan collection: Tales From Outer Suburbia. However, just as an anthology of Beatrix Potter stories doesn’t do justice to the individual tales compared to the individual, child-sized editions, Eric is best experienced in miniature, as I’m sure it was designed to be read. Page breaks and publication size are more important than sometimes given credit.
Hannah Love explains the significance of the page breaks:
The first page has no picture, and indeed Tan never places words and pictures on the same side of the gutter; the spreads may be two images, two paragraphs of narration, or text on one page and image on the other. This separation fully emphasises the two different stories and the division between them,and even creates comic effect in places, such as the account of Eric studying displayed opposite a picture of the tiny Eric having to stand on the book in the middle of his page to read.
— Unlikely Normal
Eric is similar to The Lost Thing (written and illustrated by the same author) in that:
- The narrator is a first person character, though off stage in this story
- It’s set a number years in the past, with the storyteller looking back
- The main character is a strange creature who comes from another place/time/dimension, who disappears before the end.
- The narrator wonders if this strange creature is happy.
- The creature in this story is interested in small things whereas the boy in The Lost Thing is the one who is the noticer. (Noticing this creature is a noticer is itself a form of noticing…)
- Behind the doors, in the darkness, is a world full of interesting artifacts.
- The narrator is left wondering what it all means.
ERIC AS A POSTMODERN PICTUREBOOK
What is a postmodern picturebook?
Eric may not seem like a typical postmodern picturebook. It is tiny (15cmx12cm) in comparison to many of its counterparts, lacking the large double spreads that allow for hugely detailed drawings. Yet on closer examination, the book’s inter-relationship of text and image is as complex as its contemporaries; being playful whilst simultaneously breaking boundaries. With the combination of a matter-of-fact narrative and endearing pencil drawings of the diminutive aspects of Eric which are never mentioned in the text, Tan effectively explores issues of identity and cultural difference. Grigg (2003) claims that visual images create bridges between cultures and languages, and Tan plays with this idea, showing how determination to appreciate our own culture can be detrimental to acknowledging the culture of others, a particular danger in a multicultural society. He defines Eric as being about a kind of misunderstanding and cultural miscommunication. According to Tan, the character of Eric is based on a combination of a foreign guest that Tan had to stay, and his own budgerigar. This creates a book that opposes … speculation that modern life undermines childhood as a time of play and engaging with the natural world. Eric and his fascination with the world around him show a childlike innocence compromised by an adult narrator who is baffled by and unable to fully interact with his/her guest.
— Unlikely Normal
STORY STRUCTURE OF ERIC
The main character is the storyteller narrator.
This kid (I assumed it was a boy, but she could just as easily be a girl) She is overconfident about her ability to explain her world to a newcomer.
She is looking forward to teaching an exchange student everything about her local environs. This will make her feel like an expert.
Eric, however, is not on the same wavelength at all. He asks her questions that simply can’t be answered. This means she doesn’t get to feel like the expert anymore.
Eric the exchange student, I believe, is a metonym for ‘foreign culture’.
Shaun Tan tends to be very specific about the plan part of his narratives:
I had planned for us to go on a number of weekly excusions together, as I was determined to show our visitor the best places in the city and its surrounds.
Despite the past participle, they did go on these excursions, but while the narrator wanted to show Eric the local landmarks, Eric was only interested in little things. For example, at the zoo, Eric sees only the elephant’s foot. At the casino he gets onto the table and looks at a chip. At the movies he is taken by a dropped piece of popcorn.
I might have found this a little exasperating, but I kept thinking about what Mum had said, about the cultural thing. Then I didn’t mind so much.
The battle is with herself — between the self that wants to show Eric everything she knows, and the self that’s open to learning from the foreigner.
We see more of this psychological battle at the dinner table when ‘There was much speculation over dinner later that evening. Did Eric seem upset?’ and so on.
In Shaun Tan’s work, self-revelations are often accompanied by images of doors and windows.
In this particular story we see Eric fly out the window on a leaf and flower sail.
It actually took us a while to realise he wasn’t coming back.
The window, however, comes before the battle scene.
Here we have a door: the pantry door.
Although Eric has gone for good, he has left as a gift a different worldview for his host family. They will never see their own environs in quite the same way, ever again.
This is the reason often cited for hosting exchange students. Other people think they’re doing an exchange student a favour by hosting them, without anticipating the benefits they’ll derive themselves.
Shaun Tan, in this picture book, has conveyed these two views with poignancy.