By Maureen Tai, 4 May 2018
“Some years ago we had a foreign exchange student come to live with us. We found it very difficult to pronounce his name correctly, but he didn’t mind. He told us to just call him ‘Eric.'”
I have a soft spot for exchange students. I was one myself over two decades ago. I still acutely remember the feelings of anxiety, excitement, fear, homesickness and nervousness, all mixed up in a gigantic ball in my gut as I landed in Narita Airport, Tokyo, unable to speak or read a word of Japanese. It was 1989, and a few days later, Emperor Hirohito would pass away, marking the end of the Showa era.
I have a soft spot for Shaun Tan as well, but that is because he is an absolute genius.
Eric is a slim book, measuring 4.5 by 6 inches. In any other person’s unskilled hands, the vacant-eyed, pointy-headed, shadowy leaf creature with spidery arms and legs would come across as eerie, creepy and perhaps slightly sinister. But in Shaun’s, he comes across as shy, gentle, curious and adorable. You want to pick him up, let him perch on your shoulder and take him home, which is probably what the narrator does.
Eric decides to appropriate the kitchen pantry as his personal space, and his host family graciously and unquestioningly accommodate him by storing their food elsewhere. The initial “getting-to-know-you” phase is a little awkward. It is more so for the host family who have been looking forward to having a foreigner in their home and who are eager to show off their customs and way of life to their visitor. It’s hard to know if Eric’s really happy and enjoying himself, hard to tell from a single pair of luminous round eyes. But the exchange student does tell the family how he feels, in his own unique way, at the conclusion of this short, sweet and faintly sad tale.
Shaun’s illustrations combine the surreal and mystical with the mundane and ordinary to entrancing effect. Both Eric and The Lost Thing share the same author and both are stories that leave you with a overwhelming sense of wonder that is tinged with melancholy. You won’t forget Eric in a hurry.
For ages 8 and up.
Eric, illustrated by Shaun Tan.