The Lost Thing

by Shaun Tan

ISBN: 0734403887

Technically speaking, I suppose this is a children’s picture book. That is the section of the store where I found it (and Tan’s excellent The Red Tree) but I think that has as much to do with the need to pigeonhole books as anything else.

The illustrations contain a fascinating level of detail. Each page is a collage, using old engineering and physics textbook pages, oil paint, acrylic paint, even bottlecaps. One could spend hours discovering small touches — like the ad for a “mobile visual technician” for whom “No plumbing too hard to draw!” or the curious whisps of smoke appearing on nearly every page. Tan works with a consistent color scheme, using aged, yellowed paper, a muted red, and many grays. As an object alone, the book is both a sturdy and beautiful thing. Kids (who are old enough) would likely be spellbound by all the gears, tubing, and pipes as they try and figure out what goes where, and why.

And “what goes where, why” is really what this story is about. Set in a creepy, controlling, near-future-yet-retro environment, it is the story of noticing a lost thing and figuring out what to do about it. Sort of an object lesson in doing what is convenient versus doing what is right. Unlike many lessons delivered in children’s books, this one comes across without heavy-handedness. One of Tan’s gifts is his ability to create an understanding of potentially difficult topics that are generally thought of as adult (depression, hope, alienation) but are, I think, quite appropriate for children.

Highly recommended — particularly for adults.

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