Australian author Shaun Tan's works straddle the line between picture books and a more graphic style of literature. He first found notoriety here in the U.S. with THE ARRIVAL, a wordless tale of a man who moves to a new country when his own is threatened by catastrophe. Forced to navigate using unfamiliar signs and symbols, the book effectively places readers in the role of the displaced person, making them as helpless and as functionally illiterate as the man himself. Reading THE ARRIVAL is a moving experience as the unnamed character learns to navigate new terrain and find a place that he and his family can call home.
More recently, Tan has published a collection of illustrated short stories called TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA. The book experiments with extraordinary events and experiences that can intrude on everyday life, whether it's a wise water buffalo that hides in the empty lot at the end of the block, the mysterious and unknown lives of one's neighbors, or the unknowable past, to which our only window may be the word of elderly relatives. Tan's gift is for the fantastical. His drawings frequently exploit industrial landscapes, while his stories allow the unexpected to blossom in unlikely places.
This blossoming of the unexpected is at the heart of THE LOST THING, a picture book Tan originally published in 2000, but that is appearing for the first time in the U.S. collected in LOST & FOUND: THREE. A boy befriends a strange creature on the beach, which looks like a cross between a kettle and a crab with gears, portals and tentacles, making you wonder if it's organic or mechanic in nature. Assessing that the creature is lost, the boy is determined to find a place for it, which leads him and the Lost Thing on a journey through what Tan calls "passive intolerance." He writes the following at the end of LOST & FOUND:
"[THE LOST THING] expresses a number of concerns I had as an adolescent, and continue to have as an adult; questions of how an individual belongs to society, balancing freedom and responsibility, finding work without relinquishing artistic pursuits or a playful imagination, and trying to stay interested and open minded. Suffusing this is an anxiety that somehow finds apt expression in the phrase, 'the lost thing': a vague sense of forgetting something important, losing the inspiration of childhood, or being worn down by the pressure of adult pragmatism and cynicism."
Of course, what makes Tan's work so moving is that he's able to express these ideas very simply through a powerful combination of images and narrative. The boy refuses to just abandon the Lost Thing until he knows it will be okay, making sure not to leave it on the beach where he found it, or abandon it to an unknown pigeonhole of bureaucracy when his parents won't allow him to keep it at home. Instead, on a tip from a janitor, they follow a series of squiggly arrows to a place where the Lost Thing can make its home.
LOST & FOUND contains two other early works by Tan previously available in the U.S. THE RED TREE is about depression, with a series of riveting images that describe the isolation and anxiety many people feel, including a diver trapped in a bottle and a snail on an endless spiral. "Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to," the story begins, "and things go from bad to worse." Each page contains a short phrase with an accompanying image to convey emotion until the end, when the girl discovers a brilliant red tree growing in her room, "bright and vivid/ quietly waiting/ just as you knew it would be." About THE RED TREE Tan writes:
"THE RED TREE is also a meditation on feelings of alienation and displacement, but of a very different kind. The basic idea of representing emotions as landscapes was inspired by the way that both children and adults can describe intangible feelings using images as metaphors: monsters, sunlight, rainbows, storm clouds... I wanted to create something useful from what can seem to be a useless experience... to simply acknowledge its [depression's] reality, its strange distortions of perspective and reason, and illuminate something that is often invisible...."
Tan writes that the initial publication of THE RED TREE was met with a wide spectrum of responses from reviewers who criticized it for being too depressing for young readers. He observed that it is often children who notice the book's details, such as the tiny red leaf that appears on every page.
This brings up one of the central questions regarding Tan's works. What is the appropriate age group for these picture books that deal with complex ideas and heavy existential themes? On his website, he addresses the picture book format and the idea of visual literacy:
"The simplicity of a picture book in terms of narrative structure, visual appeal and often fable-like brevity might seem to suggest that it is indeed ideally suited to a juvenile readership. It's about showing and telling, a window for learning to 'read' in a broad sense, exploring relationships between words, pictures and the world we experience every day. But is this an activity that ends with childhood, when at some point we are sufficiently qualified to graduate from one medium to another? ...it's clear that older readers, including you and me, remain interested in the imaginative play of drawings and paintings, telling stories, and learning how to look at things in new ways."
The publisher has recommended LOST & FOUND for readers 10 and older due to these themes. The final book in the collection, THE RABBITS, is a meditation on post-colonialism using Australia's problem of an uncontrolled non-native rabbit population as a metaphor for colonialism itself. Again, complex ideas are presented simply through the interplay of text and image. It represents culture in conflict and asks whether reconciliation is possible. The answer is ambiguous and left up to the reader to imagine. Tan's drawings point to the stars.
As Tan acknowledges in his extensive author's notes at the end of the book, the three picture books collected in LOST & FOUND share themes of displacement, whether it's "a country invaded by aggressive strangers, a homeless creature, or a girl adrift in the world of her own dark emotions." They are tales of loss and recovery, which address belonging. "There is an implicit recognition here that important things in life are not always immediately visible, and can't always be named or fully understood."
Tan's books always stretch to reach for the unnamed and invisible, to give form to ideas not always easily expressed by words. On his website he writes, "I see each book as an experiment in visual and written narrative, part of an ongoing exploration of this fascinating literary form." I'm excited to see his work reaching into new formats --- such as animation --- and hope that his recent Oscar win will bring wider exposure to his books. I was lucky enough to see The Lost Thing just prior to the announcement of the awards. It really brings his work to life. I highly recommend the animated short if you're able to see it. If not, try to get your hands on one of his books. It's an experience you will not soon forget.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on March 1, 2011