Tales from the Inner City

Illustrated by Shaun Tan

Tales from the Inner City

“It’s hard to convey how natural it all seemed, and how even the first conversations began without us really noticing.”

Tales from the Inner City is a collection of 25 stories told in words and breathtaking images. Set in a nondescript, post-urban jungle, each story centers an animal from a different ecosystem, with the homo sapiens being told last. Opening with Alice Walker’s quote “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons,” the stories step back from human-centered perspectives (see anthropocentrism) to show us, at once, how we have mistreated animals (say, in “We took the orca from the sea and put it in the sky) and how resilient animals and nature are (say, in “Crocodiles live on the eighty-seventh floor”). All stories are narrated in the first person—sometimes the singular “I” but more often in the plural “we” for humanity. Each is a stand-alone vignette with its own questions or message. Each story is also crafted by organically weaving together haunting images and verbal narrative—some in prose and some in free verse. 

Tales is a meditation on human relationship with animals at the time when the animal world is crashing under human-driven pressures (see the Anthropocene, the Sixth Extinction, biodiversity loss). The book offers stories that help students grasp the destructiveness of our default anthropocentric worldview (see anthropocentrism) and learn about the alternative called the ecocentric worldview (see ecocentrism). In both arrangement and content, the stories model ways to deconstruct the standard Western distinction between nature and humanity. Specifically:

1) Animal characters are not anthropomorphized but have their own purpose and modes of existence. Human characters, by contrast, are nameless and intentionally nondescript to represent species rather than individuals.

2) The Table of Contents is arranged not as a page-numbered list, but as a double-spread mural with animal silhouettes standing for chapters. This design shows the human as just one among other animals and encourages a pick-and-choose, animal-centered reading instead of a linear reading from one beginning to a clearly-defined end.

3) Another prominent feature of the book is how it blends nature and city environments. Animal characters are shown in urban settings as their natural environments (like in “Where money gathers, so do pigeons”), which explodes another foundational binary of the contemporary culture: that of city vs. nature. Each story offers its own ideas that question human supremacy.

While not being explicitly about biodiversity loss, Tales is a dream-like, nostalgic book, mindful of the environmental devastation we have created. It is also an eerily hopeful book (see planetarianism), placing hope in the agency of nature, with animals adapting, morphing, or mutating in response to human impacts. Tales raises questions about our future in a damaged world—a future that will largely depend on how we choose to relate to the nonhuman. And it communicates that we are but one species—extremely young and foolish at that—among many others that have been around for millions of years and will likely continue long after we’re gone (see deep time). But we still have a chance. Even if we cannot understand each other through the species barrier, we are all Earthlings, intertwined with each other in surprising and complicated ways (see human-animal kinship). Is it so hard to imagine a future where humans respect nature and coexist with animals in an ecological civilization?

Full reviews of stories can be found here.

For tips about each tale and their themes, see below. The titles are first phrases in each story:

  1. “Crocodiles live on the eighty-seventh floor”
    • Nature will continue to thrive even when humanity is gone.
    • Deep Time, Nature’s Resilience

  1. “The butterflies came at lunchtime”
    • We should take time to simply enjoy the beauty of nature.
    • Nature’s Beauty, Wonder

  1. “Once we were strangers” (dog)
    • The sentimental relationship between humans and animals is strong enough to survive the test of time.
    • Deep Time, Kinship with Animals, Perseverance

  1. The public called them indecent” (snail)
    • The close-mindedness of society prevents people from realizing all of what nature has to offer.
    • Anthropocentrism, Nature Appreciation

  1. “The monster of our nightmares is finally dead” (shark)
    • Humans demonize certain creatures yet fail to recognize the wickedness of their own actions.
    • Animal Cruelty, Anthropocentrism

  1. “She noticed the first poster” (cat)
    • Animals can bring comfort in unexpected ways.
    • Kinship with Animals, Unity

  1. “You are two years old” (horse)
    • Humans tend to only care about animals for the potential profit they can bring.
    • Anthropocentrism, Capitalism, Consumerism, Animal Cruelty

  1. In the room at the back of our apartment” (pig)
    • We should stand up for what is right, even if it means going against tradition.
    • Hope, Youth Agency, Taxidermy, Trophy Hunting

  1. “Consider this: There’s no ocean in our city” (moonfish)
    • An animal’s true worth comes from its soul.
    • Consumerism, Nature’s Beauty

  1. “The rhino was on the freeway again”
    • Humans tend to ignore the consequences of their selfish behavior until it is too late to fix them.
    • Human Impact, Anthropocentrism

  1. “I’m not afraid of the waiting room” (owl)
    • Even if a situation seems frightening, the end results may be worthwhile.
    • Perseverance, Hope

  1. “One afternoon, the member of the board” (frog)
    • People must learn to do good in spite of the world’s corruption.
    • Hope, Activism, Capitalism

  1. Respect the sheep
    • Humans lack a proper appreciation for the animals that provide for us.
    • Livestock, Empathy, Industrial Agriculture, Ecocentrism, Speciesism, Anthropocentrism

  1. “The boy was a genius” (hippo)
    • We must learn to break free from the negativity and narrow-mindedness of society.
    • Activism, Society

  1. “We found them in gutters” (lungfish)
    • All people have the capacity for good.
    • Hope, Human Nature

  1. We took the orca from the sea and put it in the sky
    • Humans often act selfishly, with little consideration for the long-term implications of their actions.
    • Anthropocentrism, Human Impact, Animal Cruelty

  1. “You will never escape the tiger”
    • Defying social norms can lead to a better, more fulfilling life.
    • Society, Freedom, Activism

  1. “People who don’t live with parrots”
    • When we view the world through an anthropocentric lens, we miss out on the intelligence and uniqueness of other creatures.
    • Anthropocentrism, Kinship with Animals

  1. “Bears with lawyers”
    • Humans continuously deny the truth of their actions in order to maintain their false sense of supremacy.
    • Anthropocentrism, Animal Cruelty

  1. “In Zürich, I see it” (eagle)
    • The world involves so much more than just our human lives.
    • Deep Space, Wonder

  1. I am fox! I go wherever I go!
    • Nature’s gifts are often taken for granted despite our heavy reliance on them.
    • Ecocentrism, Anthropocentrism, Interconnectedness, Speciesism

  1. “Where money gathers, so do pigeons”
    • The value and sanctity of nature far outweighs that of any material treasure.
    • Nature’s Resilience, Deep Time, Consumerism

  1. “Mr. Katayama wakes up in the night” (bee)
    • Nature deserves to be protected merely for its beauty and power.
    • Wonder, Unity, Nature’s Beauty

  1. “Nobody knows what they are for” (yak)
    • The serenity of nature can provide a nice distraction from the stresses of daily life.
    • Nature’s Beauty, Wonder, Capitalism

  1. “We tell each other the same story” (human)
    • The continuance of anthropocentric behavior will eventually result in a lonely and desolate planet.
    • Human Impact, Anthropocentrism, Deep Time

©2021 ClimateLit (Brita Olmstead and Marek Oziewicz with later edits by Alexandra Delacruz)

This book is featured in the Climate Literacy in Education’s critical essay: “Humanity’s Reliance on the More-Than-Human in Shaun Tan’s Tales from the Inner City

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic, 2018

Pages: 224

ISBN: 978-1338298406

Audience: Questers (8-13), Rebels (14-older)

Format: Picturebooks, Poetry and Short Stories, Short Stories

Topics: Animal Cruelty, Animals, Anthropocene, Anthropocentrism, Biodiversity Loss, Biosphere, Concept Nature, Conservation, Deep Time, Ecocentrism, Ecological Civilization, Green Living, Human Expansionism, Human Impact, Industry, Kinship with Animals, Nature, Nature's Agency, Nature's Resilience, Nearby Nature, Pollution, Rewilding, Solutions

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