Introducing the Book
Part of the Shaun Tan Education Resource.
The Lost Thing tells the story of a boy who discovers a bizarre lost creature at the beach and sets out to find somewhere it can belong. Shaun Tan emphasises that he writes picture books not children’s books. His books, like many picture books, deal with complex themes.
There is an appealing simplicity in the form, which is not to say that it is necessarily simple: the restrained coupling of text and image can contain any level of poetic sophistication or complexity. ‘Art,’ as Einstein reminds us, ‘is the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way.
Accordingly, Tan’s illustrations do not ‘explain’ text but build a landscape of questions and ideas.
Before reading the story:
- Focus on the cover as a class.
- What stands out?
- What is it telling us about the story we are going to read?
- What might be meant by ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to’?
After reading the story:
- Think about your response to the story and share your ideas as a class, in small groups or with a partner.
- How did the story make you feel? Explain.
- The boy is the only person who notices the lost thing. What does this tell you about the world where the story takes place?
- What happens to the lost thing?
- What happens to the boy? Why?
- Now that you have read the story, how would you explain the meaning of the line on the cover: ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to’?
- Respond to the look and visual style of the book.
- Describe the different visual elements used to represent the boy’s world and the world of lost things. Why do you think these two places are depicted in the way they are?
- What colours have been used to represent the two worlds explored in the story? Why?
- Make a list of the shapes and objects that comprise the worlds portrayed in The Lost Thing.
- Focus on the different angles and perspectives used to represent the boy’s world. Describe three of these perspectives in detail and explain what they add to the story.
- The book is made up of pictures of many different sizes; some pictures fill the page, while others are much smaller. Compare the effect of this way of constructing the book with another picture book that is more uniform. Why has Tan chosen this way of telling his story?
- What is the effect of the engineering text books that provide the background for the story? Why do you think this background is not used for the world of lost things?
- What is the purpose of the bottle top drawings on the inside of the cover? What do they add to the story?
- What do you think of the final image? Why does the story end like this? What does this image add to the story? Explain.
- The Lost Thing is a story that encourages readers to ask questions and to return to the story to find out more about the world it presents.
- What did this story make you think about?
- Why doesn't anyone other than the boy notice the lost thing? What does this tell us about him and the people around him?
- Describe the setting of the book. What kind of world does the boy live in?
- Look more closely at the Federal Department of Odds and Ends.
- What does it look like?
- Describe the way it is depicted. Focus on colours, shapes, perspectives and angles.
- How do the words of the story add to the description?
- How does the lost thing respond to this place? Why?
- Focus on the ending.
- How has the boy changed in the time since he last saw the lost thing?
- Why do you think he sees weird things ‘less and less these days’?
- This is a book about ideas.
- Make a list of all the ideas explored.
- Share these ideas as a class.
- Shaun Tan stresses that picture books are not always books for young children.
- Prepare a short presentation in any form you wish to explain why The Lost Thing is not a children’s book.
- The world of the story is a place where no one notices very much at all and this has made it lifeless and bleak.
- Why does ‘not noticing’ have this negative effect on people’s lives and the world around them? Can you think of some real-life examples of the danger of not noticing?
- As well as exploring many different aspects of human experience, The Lost Thing draws on many different emotions.
- What are some of the feelings that the story evokes?
- As well as being heartfelt and whimsical, The Lost Thing is also comical.
- How and where is humour used in The Lost Thing?
- Choose a page or a double page spread from the book and consider how the pictures and the words work together to tell the story.
- When answering, take into account the overall design of the page including the borders and the arrangement of words and pictures on the page.
- As well as describing the page you have chosen, explain how it fits into the story as a whole.
- In creating the images for his book The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan drew inspiration from artists as diverse as Edward Hopper, John Brack and Hieronymous Bosch. Hopper and Brack contributed to the look of the boy’s world and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights inspired the look of the utopian world of lost things.
- Find out more about the work of these artists and give specific examples of where and how Tan draws on them in his own work. In your answer, focus on colour, shape, contrast and depth.
- If you are particularly interested in the influence of other artists on Tan’s work, you may like to read his essay on the subject of ‘Originality and Creativity’
- Picture books are not always books for young children.
- Go to Shaun Tan’s website to read what he has written about the picture book form and the way he sees his role as writer and illustrator.
- In this essay Tan uses the metaphor of the battery to describe the relationship between words and pictures in his stories and the role of the reader. "When working I often like to think of words and images as opposite points on a battery, creating a potential voltage through a ‘gap’ between telling and showing. It requires the reader’s imagination to complete the circuit, their thoughts and feelings being the current that fills the silent space, without prescription."
- Explain what he means and give examples from your own reading of The Lost Thing or another of Tan’s books.
- Give some examples of moments in the story where you have used your imagination to ‘complete the circuit’ that Tan describes.
- When the boy and the lost thing visit The Federal Department of Odds and Ends, they meet a sad, lost, forgotten creature with a small voice. This creature reappears in the final page of the story.
- Tell this creature’s story.
- What is it?
- Where has it come from?
- Why has it ended up where it has?
- Why do you think it directs the lost thing to the place for lost things but does not go there itself?
- You may choose to tell this story entirely in words or entirely in pictures, or you may choose to combine words and pictures.
- As a class, share your stories and explore the similarities and differences in your responses.
- Taking as a guide the many different angles and perspectives from which the lost thing character can be observed, create your own creature within a world and draw it from a number of different and unexpected perspectives.
- Combine the class’s responses to create a gallery of ‘lost things’.
Courtesy Lothian Books/Hachette