Award-Winning AWB (Award-Winning-Books) 2013 Books GB Challenges It's Monday What Are You Reading Oddballs and Misfits Picture Books Read-a-Latte Reading Themes

Monday Reading: Misplaced and Hopeful Reds – Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree and The Lost Thing

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen and Kellee from Teach Mentor Texts (and brainchild of Sheila at BookJourney). Two of our blogging friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have inspired us to join this vibrant meme.

Last Week’s Review and Miscellany Posts

Here are a few of the reviews we have done last week. We are also inviting everyone to join our Award-Winning-Books Reading Challenge. We hosted the AWB Challenge last year and we are thrilled to be able to host it again. Do sign up if you are looking for exciting reading challenges with monthly book prizes. Click on the titles/images below to be taken to our blog posts.




Return of the Dapper Men


Photo Journal/ A-Z Photo Challenge: K is for Kiss

Arts Corner: Installation, Nail Art, and Hydrokinetic Sculpture

Photo Journal/ Weekly Photo Challenge: Lunchtime!

Book Hunting Expedition (44): Book Bargains, Bradbury, Poetry, Tomi Ungerer, and More Strange Titles

Wonderful widget crafted by the extremely talented Iphigene.
Wonderful widget crafted by the extremely talented Iphigene.

We are truly excited about our current bimonthly theme as we celebrate Oddballs and Misfits and highlight the Surreal and the Peculiar in the next two months. Since we have Shaun Tan as our Featured Guest, it is just right that we share most of his picture books with you.

IMG_6113The Lost Thing

Story and Drawings: Shaun Tan
Publisher: Lothian Children’s Books, 2000
Borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos taken by me.

This is one of the books that catapulted Shaun Tan to fame and rockstar status with the film version of this story receiving the Oscar/Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2011. I discovered this book around two years back and was awed by its futuristic vibe and its strangely-sad story despite its being matter-of-fact and straightforward. Shaun Tan manages to poke and prod the reader’s sensibility with only a few carefully-selected words and a masterful stroke of his artist’s pen that gives birth to quirky and deliciously-surreal creatures.

Finders’ Keepers: Lost Creatures and their Unwitting ‘Finders.’ The book begins with the male narrator (who looks oddly like Shaun Tan – had he been part of this parallel universe thousands of years from now) asking the following question:

So you want to hear a story?

Well I used to know a whole lot of pretty interesting ones. Some of them so funny you’d laugh yourself unconscious, others so terrible you’d never want to repeat them.

But I can’t remember any of those.

So I’ll just tell you about the time I found that lost thing.

And you know from that point forward that this is a book you just won’t be able to put down. This unsuspecting young man who was collecting bottle tops, discovered this big red thing that looked horribly out of place in what he describes to be a ‘rather ordinary day by the beach.’ What is even more interesting is the fact that nobody even seemed to notice it despite its being so inconspicuous that the only thing that is missing would be a banner that screams MISFIT around its cylindrical and oddly-shaped redred body.


And so this well-meaning young man, the unwitting finder of this strange gift that is the lost thing did a bit of investigation, playing around, while asking people around the area if they knew anything at all about the lost thing. It seemed, however, that people couldn’t really be bothered, much less provide any kind of helpful information. He even brought it to his friend Pete who “has an opinion on just about everything.” After much deliberation and scientific experimentation with seemingly-valid empirical findings, he concluded with a measure of finality:

‘I dunno, man,’ said Pete. ‘It’s pretty weird. Maybe it doesn’t belong to anyone. Maybe it doesn’t come from anywhere. Some things are like that…” He paused for dramatic effect, ‘… just plain lost.’

With Pete, the opinionated one.
With Pete, the opinionated one.

A Paradise for Abandoned Trinkets. This young man however is tenacious. He does have a generous heart, or perhaps he is just on the lookout for lost causes or an ideal – who knows with these young people? He brought the lost thing home although his mother complained about its filthy feet while his father warned him about strange diseases that it might have. Like most everyone, his parents couldn’t care less where it came from or whether it is lost – so long as it is returned to where it came from. The young man, however, is resolved that he would bring the lost thing to a place where it would ‘belong’ – a thought that consumes him.


A small ad from the newspaper caught the young man’s eye as it advertises about ‘unclaimed properties’ ‘objects without names’ and ‘troublesome artifacts of unknown origin.’ Apparently there is a Federal Department of Odds and Ends that exists in the downtown area – where such abandoned trinkets can be brought to. Armed with good intentions and a kind heart filled with hope, the boy brought the lost thing to a “tall grey building with no windows” – it even smelled like disinfectant. And as is the wont in most governmental institutions and its predictable red tape and bureaucratic paper pushing, the young man needed to fill out an entire stack of forms just to ‘return’ the lost thing – while the lost thing whimpered and made small pitiful noises.

I was looking around for a pen when I felt something tug the back of my shirt. ‘If you really care about that thing, you shouldn’t leave it here,’ said a tiny voice. ‘This is a place for forgetting, leaving behind, smoothing over. Here, take this.’

It was a business card with a kind of sign on it. It wasn’t very important looking, but it did seem to point somewhere ‘Cheers,’ I said.

Whether ‘the lost thing’ found a home where it ‘belonged’ I shall leave for you to discover.


Author Notes and Commentaries. In Shaun Tan’s website, he talked about some of his thoughts as he created this strangely-beautiful and allegorical picture book. The section where he discussed The Lost Thing is a wondrous read about his creative process and how he comes up with something strange yet still familiar. The quote that I have here however, speaks deeply about our current theme on misfits, the odd, the strange and the surreal – and the human eyes that are able to see past the lost demeanour, seeing and finding the essence of such creatures and our deep-seated connection to them.

The Lost Thing itself I always knew would be red and big, so very noticeable, which makes us wonder why nobody really notices it (this is the key question of the story, for which there is no single answer). Its design was based on a pebble crab, a small round crustacean with claws that hinge vertically, and I combined this with the look of an old-fashioned pot-bellied stove, with a big lid on top instead of a mouth. I did not want the creature to have any anthropomorphic features, especially no face, so it’s eyes are reduced to small dots which emerge from a hole. The main thing was that it looked strange and unrecognisable – which is not always easy.

The creature exists in contrast to the world it inhabits, being whimsical, purposeless, out-of-scale and apparently meaningless – all things that the bureaucracy cannot comprehend, and so it is not worthy of any attention. Being a curiosity is only effective if the populace is curious, and they aren’t, being always “too busy” doing more important things.

There is perhaps some suggestion that the creature is an accidental by-product of the industrial landscape, a sort of unconscious mutation, appearing on the beach as if ‘washed up’. Towards the end of the book we notice that while the lost thing may be unique, it is not alone – evidently weird creatures regularly appear in the city, but their presence can be measured only by the extent to which they are noticed (ie. generally not at all). What these things are exactly should be a broad and open question for the reader, given that they symbolise some fairly open-ended notion of  ‘things that don’t belong’.

Here is a youtube clip of Shaun Tan discussing this very same thing – only this time in reference to the award-winning film:

Teacher Resources. Here is a downloadable pdf link created by Gill Paton for the Dundee Contemporary Arts in 2011 as it relates to the film version of the book. It includes a list of activities that can be used by teachers in the classroom.

This is a downloadable pdf link created by NSW Department of Education and Communities and includes technology tips for possible digital activities, several tasks and themes, and even a ‘word cloud’ that can be done inside the classroom.

Here is another comprehensive downloadable pdf link created by Jack Migdalek for The Arts Centre. This one however is in connection to a play as performed by the Jigsaw Theatre company as inspired by the picture book. It includes a set of suggested activities that have been grouped into written, spoken, visual arts, and performance arts activities. Do check it out.

The Red TIMG_6108ree

Story and Illustrations ByShaun Tan
Publisher: Lothian Children’s Books, 2001.
Book borrowed from the NIE library. Book photos taken by me.

This is a book that I often read aloud to my more than a hundred teacher-students every semester as I remind them that they can be a child’s ‘red tree’ at significant points in their lives. This is a book filled with metaphors – as heartaches take on monstrous forms, a child’s uncertainties transformed into strange and frightening creatures. Yet it is also a book about a glimmering red – hopeful tiny seeds that can bloom into a huge crimson tree amidst dark, flying, haunted things that go bump in the night.

On Darkness that Engulfs and Padlocks of Regret. In Shaun Tan’s website, he gave a moving commentary explaining the bottled miseries and gaping darkness in this book and the creative inspirations behind it:

Originally I was planning to paint pictures about a range of emotions; fear, joy, sadness, amazement and so on. But the more I worked on this, the more I found the negative emotions – particularly feelings of loneliness and depression – were just much more interesting from both a personal and artistic point of view. Not that I’m an unhappy person, it’s just that these ideas seem to be utlimately more thought-provoking. 


Readers have occasionally asked me why my imagery is often ‘dark’, and I think it’s because of this. I’m more attracted to those things that aren’t quite right, like the social and environmental injustice in The Rabbits, or the social apathy of The Lost Thing, or even ideas about self-destruction in The Viewer. I find such things artistically engaging, perhaps because they are unresolved, like a puzzle. At the same time, I do enjoy work that is celebratory – which The Red Tree ultimately is – but any apparent meaning is always laced with uncertainty. The red tree may bloom, but it will also die, so nothing is absolute or definite; there needs to be an accurate reflection of real life, as something that is continuously in search of resolution. 


More than anything, I love how respectful Shaun Tan is when it comes to appreciating a child’s sensibilities and his unspoken valuing of a child’s intelligence, sensitivity, and capacity to appreciate something that is complex, allegorical, and ultimately transformative and even possibly life-changing. This book also speaks of moments in a reader’s life when the world can indeed be a ‘deaf machine’ and there is that infinite, hateful waiting that defies the boundaries and definition of patience and steadfastness because “nothing ever happens” despite the continual circles of waiting – as one is self-imprisoned by a padlock of regret that is curiously one’s own making – the craftsmanship amazing in its circuitously-self-imposed chains and locks.

A Bright and Hopeful Red: What is your Red Tree? There is no fanfare, no neat resolutions, no quick fixes in this narrative. I always have a quiet awed hush at the end of the book when I finish reading this in front of a huge adult crowd (mostly teachers) – a sharp intake of anticipation, a bated breath, a hint of more that the reader should resolve on his or her own. It is undoubtedly an immensely powerful book that has multiple layers and ultimately the reader would take from it what it will – depending on where they happen to be at certain points in their lives.


Teacher Resources. Here is a downloadable pdf teacher’s notes created by Nancy Mortimer for Hachette Children’s Books. It contains possible group activities as well as discussion pointers that may be raised in class.

This is another education resource created by Emily Taylor for the Barking Gecko Theatre Company – a valuable teacher resource pack. It includes pre-show as well as post-show activities across different levels of students. It even includes possible creative response to theatre, digital narratives, and a make your own red tree activity.

Here is a lovely youtube project inspired by The Red Tree created by ellsiekay. Hope you enjoy it.

Currently Reading…



I am deeply fascinated by Laura Amy Schlitz’ Fire Spell (also known as Splendors and Glooms) – it appeals to the darkness in me. It is kind of thick, but I am hoping to make more progress this week. I haven’t read much of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children not because it is not riveting, but because I own the book, and I have the luxury of time to read it at any time I choose to. The library books take precedence at this point, I think, especially those that are nearly overdue.

How about you, dear friends, what have you been reading this week?


The Red Tree is The Children’s Book Council of Australia Honour Book

The Lost Thing received an Honourable Mention at the Bologna International Book Fair, Italy, was named an Honour Book at the CBCA Awards, won an Aurealis Award and a Spectrum Award for illustration in the United States.

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 17 of 35


59, 60 of 150

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

15 comments on “Monday Reading: Misplaced and Hopeful Reds – Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree and The Lost Thing

  1. I didn’t realize Fire Spell was just the international edition of Splendors and Gloom! Anyway, reading your post has made me want to track down the short film “The Lost Thing.” Have a great reading week!


  2. I love Shaun Tan and haven’t read either of these. Now, I admit that I was reading “The List Thing” on the cover, but even when I read Lost Thing, my library doesn’t have it. I’ll order that one. But they do have The Red Tree and another I haven’t read. I’m really excited about reading both.


  3. Thanks for the in-depth sharing of Shaun Tan. I found Lost Thing, so fascinating. And I’ll be curious to hear what you think of Fire Spell; it indeed is dark and well written, just not sure how it would appeal to kids.


  4. I loved Ferdinand as a kid. Seriously considering getting Miss Peregrines.
    What I’m reading


  5. I still haven’t made it to Miss Peregrine either, but loved Splendors and Glooms-quite complex but good! Thanks for the detail about these two Tan books. I don’t know either, so will look for them, Myra. He is terrific!


  6. The Story of Ferdinand was one of my very favorite books ever as a kid! I still love it. 🙂 Have a great week!


  7. Love Shaun Tan I also love Tales from Outer Suburbia – it is a favourite at our house. I just read The Red Tree a few months ago. So fantastic. Thanks for sharing!


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