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Shaun Tan's new book 'Creature' collects his drawings, paintings and reflections


As far as Shaun Tan is concerned, the idea of needing to belong to something can be overrated. Tan is an artist and writer whose work has earned a cult following. He's best known for his graphic novel "The Arrival" and the Academy Award-winning short film "The Lost Thing." NPR's Elizabeth Blair spoke with Tan about his new book, "Creature," a collection of his art that spans nearly 25 years.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Shaun Tan's creatures are made of a little bit of everything, stuff from nature and your kitchen - a toaster with horns, a birdlike beast with one eye, a mechanical-looking bug towing a giant strawberry. Some of them are fierce, but a lot of them are playful and cuddly.

SHAUN TAN: I've always been interested in the strange creature as a companion, not as an adversary or antagonist or a threat or something even scary and mysterious but as the person sitting next to you.

BLAIR: In Shaun Tan's graphic novel "The Lost Thing," a boy walks on a beach, collecting bottle caps. He sees a huge, red creature like a metal pot with crab claws. Nobody else seems to even notice it. But the boy is curious.


TIM MINCHIN: (As Narrator) Turned out to be really friendly, and I played with the thing for most of the afternoon.

BLAIR: The book was turned into a short film narrated by Australian actor Tim Minchin.


MINCHIN: (As Narrator) As the hours slouched by, it seemed less and less likely that anyone was coming to take the thing home. Soon, there was no denying the unhappy truth. It was lost.

BLAIR: The boy tries to help the lost thing find its home.

TAN: The question for me was always, why is he engaging with this creature? Why is he so worried about where it belongs? And where does that question of belonging lead him?


MINCHIN: (As Narrator) I decided to hide the thing in our back shed, at least until I could figure out what to do next. I mean, I couldn't just leave it wandering the streets.

BLAIR: Tan's new collection includes a lot of the original sketches from "The Lost Thing." It was his first book. At the time, he was a freelance illustrator but wanted to do his own work.

TAN: It kind of tapped into something I was feeling at the time in my mid-20s, a sense of wanting to be creative but not quite sure where I belonged and what the meaning of my work was. And the story ended up being about all those things, about, what do you do with meaningless work, and is that OK? And I've come to realize it is OK (laughter). I've made a career out of it.

BLAIR: Tan doesn't think his creatures are meaningless anymore, just the opposite. He says he's figured out something serious to say with them. Eventually, the boy in "The Lost Thing" understands that the creature might not belong anywhere, and that's OK.

TAN: When someone says that in order to belong, you need to be this sort of thing or you need to fulfill these certain requirements, well, it's going down a very bad road. And you see that happening all over the world, and it also is a basis for a lot of needless disagreement between people.

BLAIR: Tan's graphic novel "The Arrival" is also about belonging and dislocation. It follows a man emigrating to a country that has both humans and creatures.

TAN: I'm interested in what you do when you encounter something that's really, really strange and unfamiliar and how we respond to that. Whether it's with fear, evasion or curiosity and maybe even love is really quite telling.

BLAIR: Shaun Tan's new collection is called "Creature: Paintings, Drawings, And Reflections." Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE THE ROBOTS' "KADUWA (FEAT. TEEBS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.