Quick Guide – The Lost Thing

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In our occasional series of Quick Guides, we present some ideas for discussing children’s books that can be read and discussed at home or school. This guide for Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing was originally posted to our old website in January 2002. We’ve made some tweaks to make the notes more friendly to anyone using them at home.

About the Author

Shaun Tan grew up in Perth and works as an artist, writer and film-maker in Melbourne. He is best known for illustrated books that deal with social, political and historical subjects through dream-like imagery. The RabbitsThe Red TreeTales from Outer Suburbia, Rules of Summer and the graphic novel The Arrival have been widely translated throughout the world and enjoyed by readers of all ages. Shaun has also worked as a theatre designer, a concept artist for Pixar and won an Academy Award for the short animated film The Lost Thing. In 2011 he received the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in Sweden, in recognition of his services to literature for young people. His most recent books are  The Singing Bones, Cicada and the Kate Greenaway award-winning Tales from the Inner City.

About the Book

The Lost Thing is a humorous story about a boy who discovers a bizarre-looking creature while out collecting bottle-tops at a beach. Having guessed that it is lost, he tries to find out who owns it, or where it belongs, but the problem is met with indifference by everyone else, who barely notice its presence. Each is unhelpful in their own way; strangers, friends, parents are all unwilling to entertain this uninvited interruption to day-to-day life. In spite of his better judgement, the boy feels sorry for this hapless creature and attempts to find out where it belongs.

This picturebook for older readers is an interesting combination of text and image, which provokes thoughtful responses. The mysterious ‘lost thing’ and its relationship with the enigmatic narrator, the desolate urban setting and the lack of engagement of most of the human characters, plus the invitation to ponder ”what it all means’, combine to make this a good choice for higher attaining readers at the top end of Key Stage 2 although younger readers may also be able to access the text.

There is an animated short film of the book which could be used for a ‘page to screen’ topic.

Before Reading


One way of introducing this book is to read the text before sharing any of the images with the children.  As soon as you have finished ask them to draw the lost thing.  Share and discuss the images.

Talk about other images that were created in the minds-eye when you read the story aloud. What do they imagine the narrator of the story looks like?

Literature circle

Distribute copies of the book. Allow time for the children to read it independently and then to make notes of their first responses.

  • Invite them to make notes of their first responses.
    • Were there any surprises?
    • Did the story remind you of anything else you have read or seen?
    • Did you find anything puzzling or strange?
    • What questions remain unanswered at the end of the book?

Organise the children in small groups (4 usually works well). Share notes. Encourage attentive listening while everyone has their turn.

Now revisit the book and discuss.

During Reading

The supplementary prompts below can be used for deeper analysis once the children have had time to formulate their own ideas.

The cover

Read what is written on the inside flap of the French fold.

  • Who do you think wrote this?
  • Who is the postcard on the back from and to?
  • What is ‘suburbia’? Have you heard the word before? Look it up in a dictionary.
  • Would you expect exciting adventures to happen in suburbia?
  • Is there anything strange about the statue on the front cover? Where do you think it is pointing?

The narrator

Who wrote this story?

  • Why do you think the narrator looks after the lost thing?
  • Choose three words to describe the narrator and share them with your group. As a group decide on the three best words – you need to be able to explain why you have chosen them.
  • Has the narrator changed in any way at the end of the story as a result of his encounter with the lost thing?
  • Do you think bottle top collecting is an interesting activity?

The setting

Describe the setting in your own words.

  • How does the setting make you feel?
  • What colours has Shaun Tan used?
  • Is it similar or different from where you live? In what ways?
  • Would you like to live here? Why? Why not?

Looking closely

Select two or three images for close looking (e.g. the beach, the image with Shaun and Pete sitting on top of the house, Shaun’s parents,  the inner city high-level view looking down on Shaun and the lost thing, the place of lost things).

Finding the lost thing on the beach

  • Working in pairs ask the children to describe what they can see. Is there anything puzzling or strange in this picture?
  • Does the beach look like an interesting place?
  • What does the surrounding landscape look like?
  • Why do you think there are traffic lights on the steps leading to the beach?
  • Is there any writing in the main picture? What does it say?
  • How do you think the lost thing communicates?
  • Do you think the lost thing is friendly? What makes you think that?

In-School Activity

Notice how Shaun examines every part of the lost thing trying to work out what it is and how it works. Create a feely bag with different components which could be part of the lost thing (e.g. some cogs, rubber of plastic piping, a bell, the top of a lemon squeezer etc). Invite the children to put their hands into the bag, pick an object and describe it just from feeling. Write down their descriptions.

Shaun’s parents

  • Describe what it is like in Shaun’s living room.
  • What is everyone doing? Are they communicating with each other?
  • Where is the lost thing?
  • What are Shaun’s parents’ objections? Do you think they have a valid point of view or not?
  • How would your parents react if you took a lost thing home?

The resolution

  • What happens to the lost thing at the end of the story?
  • What happens to Pete at the end of the story?

Look at the pictures on the double-page spread which starts ‘I still think about the lost thing…’

  • Do you think The Lost Thing has a happy ending?
  • Why do you think the final image of the book shows the cleaner again?

After Reading

The lost thing

  • Why do only a few people see the lost thing?
  • How can Shaun tell the thing is lost? How can he tell the thing is friendly?
  • Do you think the lost thing is a machine or a living creature? Does it have feelings and emotions? How can you tell?
  • Why do you think the cleaner knows what to do with the lost thing?
  • Read the following statements and decide if they are true, untrue or you are unsure. (This works best if the statements are printed and cut out so they can be placed in 3 piles). Use this activity as a starting point for follow-up discussion once the statements have been sorted into sections.
There is only one lost thing in the entire world
The lost thing is invisible
The lost thing is lonely
The lost thing looks for lonely people
The lost thing wants to be alone
The lost thing is in Shaun’s imagination
Only children and animals can see the lost thing
The lost thing is a machine
The lost thing is frightening
The lost thing is an animal
The lost thing comes from another planet
The lost thing is frightened
The lost thing is happy to be different
Shaun is a lost thing
The lost thing escaped from the zoo
The lost thing is looking for friends
The lost thing wants to be the same as everyone else

True Untrue Not Sure


The strapline on the front cover reads ‘A tale for those who have more important things to pay attention to’. Now that you have read the book, how do you think this strapline relates to the story?

Thinking about themes

What do you think are the main themes in this story? Remind the children that themes are big ideas that underpin the story. They relate to concerns, ideas, beliefs and feelings about life. Themes do not have to be explicitly stated but are inferred from characters behaviour, narrative structure and lexical choices. One way to identify themes is to look at the decisions, changes or lessons learned. Discuss these in your groups and find some evidence in the text

Theme indicators Evidence in the book Supporting quotations
Lessons learned  

Typography and design

  • How does the design of the book help to tell the story?
    • What sort of paper is used for the pages?
    • What sort of lettering is used for the text?


  • Is there any humour in this story?
  • Look up the word ‘satire’. Could The Lost Thing be described as a satire?


Word Sentence in text Sentence in text Heard it before? Dictionary definition
loitering No loitering


Look carefully at the pictures with a partner and discuss how you think the lost thing works.

  • How does it move?
  • How does it communicate?
  • How does it eat?
  • Can it see/hear/feel?

Draw a diagram to show how the lost thing works.

Write an explanation text to accompany the diagram.

Alternatively, you might pick one of the other creatures from the place of lost things. Or you could create your own and write about that instead.