The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

By Maureen Tai, 20 April 2018

“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.” – Pete



I can’t remember how I came across The Lost Thing, or what compelled me to flip through the ochre and sepia-tinged picture book pages.  Perhaps it was the small print on the cover that said “A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to.”  Perhaps it was the oddly ethereal yet somewhat dystopian world that spread out before me.  Or perhaps it was just luck.

The narrator is a bespectacled teenager with an extremely elongated forehead, his head topped by a shock of brushy hair. He is wandering concrete streets, looking for bottle-tops to add to his collection.  Rusted pipes snake along the walls, many curving meaninglessly into each other.  Unintelligible signs sit at the top of posts or are stuck to the sides of cheerless industrial buildings.  There are dials everywhere, as undecipherable as the long-faced inhabitants that trudge soullessly across the city landscape.  The sky is a dull slate-grey.  Even the ocean is a forbidding shade of black.  There is not one tree, not one blade of grass to be seen.

But then the teenager spots the giant teapot-shaped Thing on the beach. Ignored by everyone, it doesn’t seem to belong there.  The Thing itself is a little hard to describe. The doors and hatches on its metal sides open to reveal tentacles upon which it elegantly balances.  Its primary arms are two oversized metal pincers, which from the end of each dangles a delicate and tiny red bell.  When it opens its mouth – the teapot cover which is covered with protrusions – the Thing’s insides are revealed, a mass of swollen tentacles, gears, pipes and dials.  It is bizarre looking, but yet strangely endearing.  Because it is lost, and it is lonely.

The perplexed teen decides to help the Thing and takes him home. He soon realizes however that he can’t hide his ward from his parents forever.  A visit to the Federal Department of Odds & Ends results in a chance encounter with a janitor, an odd creature, who hands the teen a card that has a picture of a single, curvy white arrow on it.  Does this point to the right direction? the teen wonders.  It turns out that it does, and when the Thing and the boy finally part company, there is a sizeable lump in my throat.

But I’m not sure why I am sad, or perhaps I am not sad, but just wistful.  Perhaps it is because of all the lost people in this world, our world, our lush, variegated and beautiful world. Perhaps it is because of how indifferent we are to these lost souls.  Or perhaps it is because we are all, at the end of the day, a little bit lost.

For ages 8 and up.

Postscript: The Lost Thing was adapted into a gorgeous Academy Award-wining animated film some years ago. Read the book, and see the film. Both are exquisite.


With a whole bunch of Shaun Tan’s groupies at a writing conference a few years ago.

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