“The Lost Thing” or “How Shaun Tan Helped Me Find What Went Missing”

This is going to take a while, so I apologize right up front, and I thank you for seeing it through to the end, if you do. Let’s start by stating the instigation for this post:

Shaun Tan is changing my career.

There. I said it, now it’s out there, and now I have to find the nerve to follow it through.

This all started the day I bought Shaun Tan’s book Tales from Outer Suburbia last year, mostly for the illustrations (as usual), but also because I’d been working on a book of short stories of my own, and I wanted to see how somebody else tackled that kind of project.

Having Suburbia and a library borrow of his The Arrival as my only Shaun Tan interactions, I dragged family to see the Oscar-Nominated Animation Shorts at a local movie theater last month. The Lost Thing was one of the nominees (and eventual Oscar winner) and was based on Shaun’s Australian-released children’s* book of the same name. Shaun also worked for years on the movie.

*The word “children’s” is a little dodgy here. The book will be forced into the children’s section of bookstores because, cleary, no adult would be caught with a book filled with *gasp* pictures.

I bought the 15-minute short from iTunes within the week (sorry, no direct URL to the movie on iTunes). I pre-ordered his book Lost and Found which was released a few days later and included three of his early picture books, one of which was The Lost Thing.

I tweeted about our movie night. I tweeted about the Oscar win. I tweeted about iTunes. I tweeted about Lost and Found. Suffice it to say, the movie lingered in my little brain longer than expected. Evidently, something had happened over those few days that was making that little brain do some thinking.

I thought about my own career, and I thought about where I might have lost it.

My own Lost Thing.

I checked my checklist:

  • I work hard (kid’s illustrationsThe Rots, one of many books in the works).
  • I brand each aspect of my professional life as professionally as I can (see the sites above and below).
  • I promote myself (this blog, The Rots’ blog, my book blog, I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, I send out promotional postcards religiously).
  • I promote others.
  • I try to be a good little small-business marketer (see everything above).
  • I follow advice when it comes from multiple, knowledgable sources (art directors, editors and agents).
  • I make changes that those sources seem to think are necessary.

I’ve heard a lot of advice through the years about what editors and art directors are looking for in an illustrator. I’m a member of SCBWI, and I attend the local conferences. Before I go on, I just want to say that I know these are only opinions and guidelines, and if my work is good, it’s just a matter of finding the right editor/art director/project that will take me on, regardless of whether the work followed the advice given. I know that. I understand that. But when the work isn’t coming in and the same advice is (again and again), it may be time to think about making some changes.

This is Stanley. He is the image I used on the first postcard I sent out with the style I could finally call mine. My initial portfolio and book submissions were similar.

I was told by two editors that they were concerned my characters weren’t cute enough.

I was told by a fellow illustrator that I needed to think along the lines of three-year-olds and clowns. “And smiles,” he said. “Not creepy.”

I was told by an art director that she could only use my work for scary stories.

I was told by another art director that he couldn’t use my work, but to send him updates anyway because “you never know.” (That publishing company released a book of poetry less than two years later using an illustrator who’s work was very similar to mine, but who’s pedigree included working for Disney.)

At a conference in NYC during an open question session with a couple of art directors, one answered the question, “What are you looking for in a submission?” with:

“Don’t send me people with googly eyes, big heads, small bodies and little skinny legs.”

Our portfolios had been open for preview earlier in the day. You can’t make this stuff up.

I made the changes. I concentrated on cuter. My heads got smaller, along with my eyes, which also evened themselves out and eventually constricted to pupils. I drew clowns. I made new samples and avoided the scary. My people were smiling. I kept up with the promotions. I sent new samples every three months. I tried to keep my attitude positive.

And yet.

Why was I not getting the work?

I posed the question to an editor. “I love it!” she said. “But this would be a hard sell.”

I posed the question to an agent. “It’s the economy,” he said. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

I posed the question to an art director that same day. “It’s the economy,” she repeated. “You’re doing everything right.”

I rewrote some of my “adult” short stories to make them more “accessible” to a younger audience, based on things I had read and heard at conferences:

  • I made my kids the protagonists.
  • I made my kids solve the problems.
  • I kept my picture book submissions to 32 printer-friendly pages.
  • I consciously made an effort to create unusual perspectives and action in my illustration samples.
  • I added pages to my Web site to show I knew how to develop a character and create sequential imagery.

But more than anything I took the edge off my illustrations.

And yet.

Enter Shaun Tan.

Lost and Found is just beautiful. It breaks the rules because it can. It breaks the rules because Hatchett Australia and Arthur A. Levine gave Shaun Tan a chance to break the rules. And Shaun Tan got the chance to break the rules because he created beautiful images and wrote from the heart.

I know. There’s that other piece of advice that gets thrown around a lot. But what if beautiful images and writing from the heart stomps all over the other rules?

The Lost Thing actually shows men smoking! Not once, but three times! Smoking! The horror!

The first of the three stories is resolved by a tree, and the third story isn’t really resolved at all. But the kids! Aren’t the kids supposed to be who make everything alright?

All three stories in the Lost and Found collection have themes that would surely be considered adult-oriented. Right? Maybe older kids, but certainly not those three-year-old clown lovers. (How many kids would really understand the sign, “State-sponsored thought for the day: LET THE MARKET DECIDE”?)

And those illustrations? Where are all the action shots? Where are all the in-your-face pay-attention-to-me page compositions? What’s to keep the attention of these attention-deficit children?

That’s when I took a look back over the last few years to see what happened. When did I change? When did I stop illustrating for me?

I took a(nother) long, deep breath and asked, “Where did I go?”

I had lost my Me somewhere.

My funny. My style. My twisted sense of humor. The Me that made my illustrations mine. My ideas had been squashed by 32 pages of cute. Of action. Of advice. Of opinions.

Shaun Tan’s advice to illustrators:

“Think about the things in yourself that are different to everybody else. And don’t think of those as a disability or something negative, but think of it as a positive attribute. Whatever it is that makes you unique, that’s what people are interested in.” 

Really? I so need this to be true.

I want to make a beautiful book that happens to be loaded with illustrations. A book with pictures. Why are picture books only geared toward kids? I buy kid’s books all the time. For me. I buy them for the pictures. My collection of picture books are alphabetized by illustrator.

I want to make the beautiful books I see in my head, the ones that most publishers won’t touch, the ones that may or may not contain kids, where the kid may or may not be the protagonist, that may or may not be scary, that may or may not have an adult sneaking a smoke in somewhere. The ones that may or may not depict clowns as the creepy nightmares they really are.

So I guess at this point I’m on my own.

I’m going to revisit some old picture books I had given up on. They had been poked and prodded and reinvented to the point I didn’t recognize them anymore. My original vision had been lost in my attempt to make them conform.

I’m going to continue with my Hairy Eyeballs project, but I’m not going to hold my breath for a publisher. I’ve submitted the book to an editor I met at a conference who definitely seems the type who would go for this sort of twisted idea of a thing, but I’ll completely understand when she tells me she isn’t interested. After the book is rejected in a few months, it will be my baby again, and I’ve no plans on submitting it elsewhere. I know people who will help me with the editing. I’ve already designed the book. I have a following of close to 3,800 people on Facebook as of this writing who think my twisted little characters really are cute (their word, not mine). But more than anything, I don’t feel the need to be accepted by the mainstream publishing world anymore.

I’m ready to make the books I’ve always wanted to make.

It’s time.

So it’s very likely at this point I’m the only one still here. But that doesn’t really matter right now, because this post was just for me.

And now, thanks to a lost thing, my creativity is again, too.