Publication Details

Oliver, K. 2011, 'Tiny leaf men and other tales from outer suburbia: Re-presenting the suburb in Australian children's literature', Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 57-66.


This paper explores how, through word and image, Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia challenges stereotypical representations of the suburban. Typically, suburban spaces have been represented as aesthetically bland, mundane, and ornamental. Tan takes these tropes and ironically re-deploys them anew, and in doing so undermines anti-suburban sentiment, which has dominated Australian literary and popular culture.

Although the notion of anti-suburbanism in Australian fiction has been well documented, its presence in children’s literature has received far less attention. As a case study, Tales From Outer Suburbia, signals the ability of children’s literature to present more positive representations of suburbia because of its inherent commitment to the socialisation of children, which is prioritised over the tradition of anti-suburbanism. Typical representations of the suburb in Australian literature have been of a place on the periphery of culture. Classed neither as a true, gritty slum, nor as a place of vibrant culture, the suburb has been cast as mundane, bland and ornamental. As such, suburban living has been used as a source of comedic inquiry, or as the object of artistic scorn.

In recent years, however, cultural geographers have started to explore geographies of home and with it, the suburb. In doing so, they have begun to position suburbia as a site with its own systems of significance and find meaning in those objects that seem ornamental and trivial. Using the theoretical underpinnings of cultural geographies of the home, which seek to examine rather than degrade suburban culture, this paper explores anti-suburbanism in literature written for adults in order to establish the means for a comparative analysis with children’s literature. Using a case study of

Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia it is argued that Tan takes tropes of suburban representations, such as the tendency to ornamentalise space, and ironically re-deploys them in order to challenge stereotypes. In this way, Tales From Outer Suburbia signals the potential of children’s literature to represent culturally rich suburban lives, something that literature written for adults rarely attempts, and is met with minimal success.