Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lost & Found

I haven't written any reviews of young adult books lately.  But that doesn't mean I haven't been reading young adult books.  It just means that with the Cybils and the reading I focused on for awards season, I've written way more picture book and nonfiction reviews.  But I had this really special book I've been longing to share with all of you.

I was first introduced to Shaun Tan, an Australian author and artist, when The Arrival was published here in the United States in 2007.  It is an amazing graphic novel about relationships, immigration and family.  So I was looking forward to reading Lost & Found, an omnibus of three short stories that had been previously published.  This is just as classic in its themes, art and emotions.  What I want to stress to you is that this book resonates for adults just as much as it connects with teens.  Teens may be more comfortable than most adults with the graphic style.  But Tan does not often use the comic book panel style, so adults may be willing to give Tan's work a try.  Then they'll be sucked in by the feelings behind these stories.

I want to describe Tan's artistic style before I start describing the stories.  Because this is a graphic novel and because I don't have a way to present pages from the book for you to look at, you'll need to be able to envision his style.  Tan has a genius way of combining a realistic world with elements that are out of the ordinary.  There are mostly familiar things, so if you scan the illustration, you might not notice anything different.  But then, looking at the details, you see things that don't fit.  On a beach full of sunbathers with umbrellas, everything looks normal and peaceful.  Then you see the large, red...thing hunched over in the middle of the beach-goers.  The thing is industrial, almost like an enormous red pot-bellied stove, but it's not quite that either.  It has legs, a tail, a spiky head.  He takes a familiar scene and gives it an edge, something that makes you just a little uncomfortable.  You can look at that red thing (or many other elements in this book) several times and never quite figure out what it is or how it works.

Tan also uses collage and text to great effect in his work.  Text is present in several ways.  Each story has its own, individual typeface. "The Red Tree"'s typeface is more of a typewriter style, while "The Lost Thing" looks like it was neatly copied into a composition notebook.  And "The Rabbits" is done in a mostly capitals typeface which looks angry and unstable, fitting its theme.  But there is also text everywhere you look.  Many of the backgrounds of the illustrations are made up of ads, newsprint, signs and other forms of text.  And the collages lend a lush, inscrutable look to the illustrations - because Tan has painted over text and sketches and other illustrations, you can almost (but not quite) see what's going on behind the larger illustrations.

The first story is "The Red Tree".  It opens with a girl peering down at a red maple leaf swirling in the water.  She is floating in a paper boat.  You can clearly see that she is unhappy - the paper the boat is constructed from has words like "nothing", "worse", and "darkness" on it.  She looks hopeless.  And as the story takes shape, her isolation becomes overwhelming.  She is shown walking, hunched down, with the shadow from an enormous fish covering her.  She tries to ascend a ladder to a paper house - clearly there is no real way in.  Words surround her.  I've never seen depression expressed like this, and I believe many teens and adults will connect with its raw emotion.  And just when the girl seems to have given up all hope, she returns home at the end of the day.  And there, waiting for her, is that red leaf on her floor, growing into a lush tree.  It's magical, and a powerful expression of hope.  The girl, who has been mostly looking down throughout the story, suddenly looks up at the tree and her  face lights up.

"The Lost Thing" is the story of a boy who sees that large red thing I referenced earlier.  He sees that no one notices it and that no one comes to get this enormous...thing.  All of the adults around him just look right past it, or hurry past it on their way to other things.  Visually, this story is very industrial.  There are factories, steam pipes, gadgets and workers everywhere.  Even the backgrounds of this story are filled with work plans, diagrams and text on hydraulics.  When the boy can't find anyone to care for this thing, he and the Lost Thing go on a journey to find a place where the Lost Thing should go.  In the end, the boy states that he, too, has gotten too busy to notice the Lost Things which are clearly still around.  He has shed the majority of the trappings of childhood, but holds onto this one story to remind him of what he has lost.

Finally, there's the story "The Rabbits".  This is a story written by John Marsden, another Australian author, but illustrated by Tan.  These are the most unsettling, threatening illustrations in the book.  The story begins with rabbits  who come to the unseen narrator's land.   As rabbits do, they multiply, beginning to overtake the land.  The rabbits speak differently, build their own houses, and remake the narrator's land the way the rabbits want it, without regard for the people who were there first.  They fight wars against the narrator's people, they destroy the landscape, and most terrifyingly, the rabbits steal their children.  This story is shocking and heartbreaking.  Tan's illustrations suit the stark text perfectly.  The rabbits are oddly shaped, yet have human characteristics, including canes, top hats and spectacles.  They definitely give off an evil feel, yet you can see prosperity and innovation in the way they create.  The rabbits are in contrast to the landscape, with rich colors and empty spaces.  This is another story where both adults and teens will come away with questions and issues to think through.

All of these stories contain so much to think about and connect with.  I strongly urge you to find this book and take time with it.  It will be well worth your while.  There are no easy answers here, and I know that's why many readers will embrace it.

Lost & Found.  Shaun Tan.  Arthur A. Levine: Scholastic, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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