A new life for Shaun Tan's lovable lost thing

AP News
Posted: Mar 02, 2011 2:33 PM
A new life for Shaun Tan's lovable lost thing

An odd but hopeful picture book about a lovable lost creature has a new life in the United States to go with its Oscar-winning, 15-minute movie.

The Academy Award victory in the short animated film category for Australian Shaun Tan's "The Lost Thing" coincides with its release this month in "Lost & Found," a collection of three stories primarily by Tan from the Scholastic imprint Arthur A. Levine Books.

Tan, 37, co-directed the movie and was only 25 when he wrote and drew "The Lost Thing," the shadowy but playful tale of a beach-combing boy who sees what others can't _ or won't: a lumbering rust-colored being with little red bells on lobster-like claws and an industrial shell wandering unnoticed in the sand. The bespectacled boy, reminiscent of Tan himself, brings the lost thing home to complaints from his parents after consulting his buddy Pete on the endearing thing's place in the world.

"I dunno, man," Pete concludes. "It's pretty weird. Maybe it doesn't belong to anyone. Maybe it doesn't come from anywhere. Some things are like that ... just plain lost."

The boy stashes the windowed, puppy-like thing in his family's back shed after it opens its top hatch for a feast of Christmas tree ornaments and other household junk. Out of options, he catches a tram with the boiler-shaped creature to the tall, gray "Federal Department of Odds & Ends," where the thing grows sad and the boy is confronted by a pile of paperwork to fill out before he drops off his find.

A mysterious janitor hands him a business card that leads him and the thing to a hidden, cheerier world full of other objects that have no other place. Looking back, the boy realizes: "I see that sort of thing less and less these days ... or maybe I've just stopped noticing them."

Tan grew up near the beach in the northern suburbs of Perth in western Australia. With his lost thing, he wanted to set the story "in this almost post-organic universe of people and machines, so instead of natural objects you'd have bits of garbage." The introverted but sympathetic protagonist teeters between adolescence and adulthood, collecting bottle caps at the beach as Tan once did while he plays out his creator's anxiety over balancing the freedom of childhood with societal responsibility.

"It is a somewhat personal story," Tan told The Associated Press by phone from Los Angeles on Tuesday before flying home to Melbourne. "In real life I think I'd be more afraid of the creature. His innocence means he was able to access an emotional response to this creature that other people who see it are not having."

The story was originally published alone in 2000 but never widely released in the United States. Neither were the other two stories in the new collection, Tan's "The Red Tree," about a depressed, hopeless girl who's led back to the light by a bright blossoming tree, and "The Rabbits," a dark and controversial allegory of colonization written by John Marsden and illustrated by Tan when he was only 22. Tan is best known for two more recent best-sellers, the short story collection "Tales from Outer Suburbia" and the graphic but wordless migrant journey "The Arrival."

Tan's trip to the big screen and the Academy Awards podium Sunday night took nine years from the time he reluctantly agreed to turn "The Lost Thing" into a movie. Oscar in hand, he now hopes to make a feature film out of "The Arrival." With help from his gold statuette, he's confident it won't take as long as his animated short to finance and release. A dozen years after writing the Oscar-worthy story, his lost thing "still feels like yesterday," when he was living alone and "just leaving childhood to some extent, worried about the future, about paying the rent and where the next check was coming from."

"I feel like I'm always on the tipping point between adulthood and childhood," Tan said. "As an adult artist, you're always trying to hold on to that."

Tan's stylized artwork and complex storytelling might feel out of reach to some parents buying for the intended 10-plus generation. Tan said he doesn't usually have kids in mind when he works. The book, he said, could be enjoyed by younger children as well.

"As a painter and a cartoonist, people don't ask me whether I'm an adult or children's painter or cartoonist," he said. "Besides, the worst reaction you can have from a kid is that they're bored. Adults don't give them enough credit for their intelligence."