“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection

“The Lost Thing” was first published in 2000. It ended up being a multi-award winning picture book, which in 2004 was reinvented as a highly acclaimed theatre production (by Jigsaw Theatre in Canberra) and in 2010 as an Oscar-winning short animated film (produced by Passion Pictures Australia). The story stimulated much thinking and critical writing about its ideas and narrative. It inspired touring exhibitions featuring Shaun’s original sketches and artworks for the book and offering insights into the making of the filma and ended up being a Shaun Tan gift that keeps on giving!

The book received an Honourable Mention at the Bologna International Book Fair, Italy and an honourable mention at the CBCA Book of the Year Awards in 2001. In 2020, it won the Phoenix Award in the US, given twenty years later to a book that did not win a major award at the time of publication. All this is only fitting for this and many other award-winning creations by Shaun Tan, who for his mastery in visual storytelling and contribution to literature in broadest sense won the 2011 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (the biggest prize in literature world)

So, what’s all the hype about?

A boy wandering around the city discovers a large red creature on the beach. It stands out as very strange but no one else seems to notice it. The creature looks sad and clearly does not fit anywhere in this world, so the boy decides to help the thing find its place.

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

This boy is the author himself, as Shaun acknowledges in his commentary on the book’s creation:

“What started out as an amusing nonsensical story soon developed into a fable about all sorts of social concerns, with a rather ambiguous ending. I became quite interested in the idea of a creature or person who really did not come from anywhere, or have an existing relationship to anything, and was ‘just plain lost’. I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of a character that would represent how I might personally respond to this, so the unnamed narrator is essentially me.”[1]

The world around the boy is apathetic: disinterested people, indifferent parents, a dispassionate friend, a bureaucratic government department…

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews
“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews
“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews
“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

It takes a while but finally the boy and the creature come across just what they’ve been hoping to find: a “Utopian” kind of place, bright and airy, as strange as its inhabitants – the alien looking creatures, all happy and content.

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

The lost thing is eager to stay and bids farewell.

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

‘Happy end!’ one might think. But it isn’t the end… As the door to “Utopia” closes the kind and caring boy remains on the other side; the side of indifference and bureaucracy. He carries on with his life and one day reflects on the fact that he doesn’t notice things that don’t fit it anymore. He is not sure whether there aren’t any of those around or perhaps he’s just “too busy doing other things” just like everybody else is attending to the “important things”.

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

Is coming of age the reason for no longer noticing and caring? Do I still care to notice? Am I not lost in the “important things” (the job, the routine, the virtual world of social networks, the rat race commitments…)? When did I last notice anything strange or anything not strange, for that matter? The questions keep rolling in… Pondering over them is part of experiencing any Shaun Tan book. Which brings up the question of who is this book for?

Traditionally “picture books” are associated with children as their audience. This is not so, however, with Shaun Tan books. They are not just for children or may be not for children at all in some cases. In an interview with The Guardian, Shaun elaborated on that expectation gap as to the intended readership of his books:

“It’s unfortunate sometimes that they are marketed to children. It’s good that kids get them, but that can exclude adults…I don’t worry too much about those things as the creator because I figure that the books will find their own audience and sometimes I like the idea that they can give adults a surprise pleasure.” [2]

And a surprise pleasure they give. Notwithstanding the not-so-amusing content of “The Lost Thing” the book abounds in satirical, humorous, tongue-in-cheek kind of details, some pretty obvious some more subtle. I love to discover these (something new is discovered each time I read it). Shaun speaks of ‘incidental details’ being key to making the whole picture believable:

“Drawing a good picture is like telling a really good lie – the key is in the incidental detail… The detail adds an element of unexpected something. All fiction is false; what makes it convincing is that it runs alongside the truth. The real world has lots of incidental details, so a painting also has to have that element of imperfection and irregularity, those incidental details.” [3]

Below are a few examples of incidental humor which I’m so fond of in Shaun’s books. Notice the Latin-inspired motto banners at the bottom of each government department stamp. Do the different pig emblems in the centre of the stamps make you smile?  How clever is the Federal Department of Economics’ motto of “Consumere ergo sum”!? Believe this to be a twist on the proper Latin “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”), Shaun’s chuckle at the consumerism overtaking the world or at the exuberant government spending or both. Have a laugh at some other mottos:

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

“Buy sensible shoes, comfortable and relaxed”, “The road ahead is paved in gold”:

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews
“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

Along the edges of the very last page is the inconspicuous “with thanks to” inscription listing the collaborators in this book’s production and if you turn the book up-side-down you’d notice the “apologies to Jeffrey Smart, Edward Hopper and John Brack”. These are the names of the great 20thc. artists and my recent interest in art history has pushed me to search for those artists’ paintings, which Shaun Tan has quoted from in “The Lost Thing”. Seek and ye shall find! And here come the findings…

The page spread from “The Lost Thing” with direct quotes from paintings by John Brack and Edward Hopper:

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

Original paintings quoted:

1. Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Early Sunday Morning, (c)  Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Oil on canvas, 89.4 × 153 cm;

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

2. John Brack (1920-1999), Collins St, 5 pm; (c) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; oil on canvas; 114.8 × 162.8 cm;

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

3. Jeffrey Smart (1921-2013), Cahill Expressway; (c) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; oil on plywood, 81.9 × 111.3 cm;

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

as quoted on the cover of “The Lost Thing”:

“The Lost Thing” by Shaun Tan: on belonging through connection Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Australian Illustrated Books, Bologna Ragazzi Award, CBCA Book of the Year Award, Feelings and Emotions, Shaun Tan Kids Book Reviews

To read more about Shaun Tan genius and see more of his books click here.

[1] Shaun Tan, “Comments on the Lost Thing”, http://shauntan.net/books.html

[2] and [3] Michelle Pauli,  “Shaun Tan’s unexpected details”, 27 July 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jul/27/shaun-tan-unexpected-details

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