“So you want to hear a story? Well, I used to know a whole lot of pretty interesting ones. Some of them so funny you’d laugh yourself unconscious, others so terrible you’d never want to repeat them. But I can’t remember any of those. So I’ll just tell you about the time I found that lost thing” – Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing
When I was sixteen I very suddenly fell in love with the art of Salvador Dalí. I don’t know what initiated this love, but I know that very early into it I had the opportunity to see a collection of his work at the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London. Since then, since being surrounded by the deep, complicated beauty of Dalí’s work, I have always felt a stronger emotional pull toward surrealist art more so than any other art movement.
Now I am no art expert. I have a BA in English and I am currently getting an MA in Children’s Literature. So when I talk about surrealist art, I can only talk about it from the experience of someone who knows what he likes, rather than from a technical standpoint. I never thought I would need to know how to talk about art articulately, not until my love of children’s fiction expanded to include the realm of picture books. Which, of course, began with a surrealist picture book. Not being an expert in art, I didn’t initially realize that this picture book was in fact the same artistic genre as the works of Dalí (though I’m sure some art expert out there could point out key similarities and differences). All I knew was that I was deeply drawn to it, that its visual complexity and dream-like visions touched me at my core. If you have ever fallen in love with a work of art, then you know how it can connect with your very soul. That is what happened to me when I first encountered Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing (2000).
Admittedly, my introduction to this text was actually through the Academy Award Winning short film (which is wholly available on YouTube here). I didn’t read the picture book until a few years later after I had started my MA in Children’s Literature. I began my degree intending to focus primarily on children’s fantasy novels, but when I realized that the short film I so highly enjoyed is also a picture book, I decided to give it a read.
While you may have (just) seen the animated short, which is a wonderful adaptation of the picture book (what with Shaun Tan being the co-director, art director and storyboard artist), reading the picture book is still a very different experience. There are a few instances in the short film that sets the screen up like a comic, with the borders made of textbook pages. This is the case for almost every page of the picture book, and often this border provides extra information and words that add meaning to the story should the reader be willing to look for it. For example, on a page in which the protagonist is considering getting rid of the lost thing, in the border is the definition of Vacuum, and under that, in almost impossible to read handwriting is: “how about the Howard government?” (I’d cite the page number, but there aren’t any so… go read the book like it’s a scavenger hunt… you’re welcome.)
This handwritten question shapes my interpretation of the text. It took me a long time to figure out what I thought The Lost Thing is about, which comes back to my love of surrealism and how complex it is, but after studying it for a paper I can say that there are two different ways of understanding the story. One is universalist, and structuralist – The Lost Thing is the story of not fitting in, and how everyone belongs somewhere. Many children can read this book and find a sense of comfort in it as they identify with both the lost thing as something that doesn’t belong, but also with the protagonist that seems to see less wondrous things as he gets older. For the child, this teaches a message to keep the magic in the world alive as they age, to not let age get in the way of belief. The other interpretation of this text is poststructuralist and considers Shaun Tan’s Chinese-Australian background – arguing this is a story about racial segregation, and that the “utopia” discovered in this story is a satiric representation of how white people misunderstand or misrepresent ghettos and internment camps. The protagonist lives in a dystopia and doesn’t even realize it.
While there is no point in guessing what Tan’s intentions were with this work, what is clear to me is that there is far more going on with The Lost Thing than just what’s on the surface. This is a picture book that can be enjoyed by children, but critically and politically analyzed by older readers as well. This is a picture book that is an absolute work of art, the images grittier than the animated short, and full of so much detail. Definitely a work I recommend to everyone of all ages, so long as they can handle the complexity. For some, the lack of a singular and clear message may prove difficult. It took me several reads to determine what I think the book is about, which is something I love about this picture book. For others, it could be very frustrating.
Despite this, the witty language, playful characters and stunning artwork make this picture book an absolute treasure. Given a chance, I believe this is a picture book that can be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone – of any age. Which is why I am using this book to begin a special five-day series for The Book Wars titled “Five Days with Shaun Tan.” As we transition from picture books to crossover fiction this week, I hope to present to you five Shaun Tan picture books that will demonstrate how intelligent, complex and soul-enriching picture books can be for any age. I think the most fitting way to move forward from here is to stop reading, and start looking:
Dudek, Debra. “Desiring Perception: Finding Utopian Impulses in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature. 15.2 (2005): 58-66. Print.
Rudd, David. “A Sense of (Be)longing in Shaun Tan’sThe Lost Thing.” International Research in Children’s Literature. 3.2 (2010): 134-147. Print.
Tan, Shaun. The Arrival. Melbourne: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006. Print.