When Piglets Oversleep: Yao Jia’s Award-Winning Picture Book,”The Reason for Being Late”

Haven’t we all searched for a good reason for being late–one that has the appearance of being legitimate, that is beyond our control, and that we hope to give to our friends, teachers, and colleagues without having to own our faults? In The Reason for Being Late (迟到的理由), a delightful picture book by a 26-year-old Chinese artist named Yao Jia (姚佳), a piglet does just that in an unnervingly quiet school hallway, searching hard for the best reason to give to his second-grade teacher before timidly pushing open the door to his classroom.

The Reason for Being Late by Yao Jia. Jinan Shi: Ming tian chu ban she, 2014. (Cotsen copy)

The Reason for Being Late (Jinan, China: Tomorrow Publishing House, 2014) tells a humorous and sympathetic story about a piglet who has overslept. Every page of the book, that is, from the front fly leaf to the title page to the back pastedown, is well crafted with interesting visual details that reward slow reading and observant eyes. Winning first place in the Fifth Hsin Yi Picture Book Awards, The Reason for Being Late is among the best picture books China has to offer her young readers today.
The picture book opens with a close-up view of an alarm clock, face down on the edge of a piece of furniture. The owner of the clock, to be revealed on the next page as a panicked-looking piglet, must have reached out, half-asleep, to turn it off, and knocked over the loyal caller. We cannot see what time it is. The only hint comes from sunlight dazzling through the gap in the curtains. We follow the hurried piglet across a quiet school playground and into a quiet school hallway. There our protagonist stops to catch his breath. He decides that he must come up with a reason for being late. First, he considers borrowing his classmates’ excuses. Perhaps he can claim he is late because, like the elephant, he spends too much time blowing his nose. The piglet discards this idea — his snout is so much shorter than the elephant’s trunk that the teacher will not be convinced.
Next he thinks of the alligator’s excuse of taking too long to brush his teeth. But this excuse would fall flat too — the number of teeth he has does not justify the amount of dental hygiene required by a wide-mouthed alligator.
10To see whose excuse the piglet next entertains, you need to turn the book ninety degrees clockwise. We see a giraffe taking her time as she wraps a scarf around her long neck. But this excuse would be a tall tale for a chubby piglet. Of the piglet’s three classmates, the giraffe’s life is the most richly imagined. The artist apparently indulged herself in customizing a cozy home for the gentle long-necked creature, even down to the special drinking cup the giraffe likes to use, how she playfully poses for photos, and how a young giraffe keeps track of her growth in height.
12In the second part of the piglet’s brainstorming effort, he changes strategy and searches for a more plausible reason that may even put a positive spin on his lack of punctuality. (Incidentally, this is a well-known technique for answering tricky questions.) He has a brilliant idea — he could say that his Dad purchased so many alarm clocks to help him be on time and he had to turn them off one by one? The double-spread illustration that accompanies the text, or the climax of the story, shows our piglet up a ladder that leans against shelves, and attending to clocks in every endearing shape.
16Besides humor, imagination, and intriguing visual detail, the creativity of The Reason for Being Late is also reflected in the expressive power achieved through font and layout of the text. The font style and size convey meanings and emotional tensions. When we see the smaller, thinner characters “Knock, knock, knock” (笃、笃、笃), we sense that it is not with boldness that the piglet has tapped at the classroom door. Similarly, as the piglet’s words, “I…I…I got up late” gradually shrink in font size, we hear his voice fading ever softer.

The images and text of The Reason for Being Late are to be savored and re-read. Do not skip the pastedown pages and fly leaves — actually, pay particular attention to those pages that we typically turn over without so much as a glance, and I promise you will be rewarded with joyful discoveries.

Acknowledgment

Thanks go to Helen Wang, children’s literature translator, for her generous editing work and feedback to this post!

Curator’s Choice: A Moving Panorama of London Cries

A few weeks ago when reading The Easter Gift published by John Newbery, I ran across the term “shews in boxes.”  Context made it clear that they were nice toys that might be given as a reward to boys or girls for being on their best behavior.   My hunch was that the phrase was a synonym for “peep-shows.”   Certainly that’s the object referred to in Lydia Maria Child’s “The Magician’s Show Box” and Nathaniel’s “Fancy’s Show Box,” both of which were published in the early nineteenth century.  But during the eighteenth century, the term comprised another kind of novelty format–the moving panorama.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest use of “show box” in a newsy letter of September 5, 1748 from Lady Henrietta Luxborough to her good friend William Shenstone the poet.  She wrote, “As to your thought about improving the Show-box, I do not despise it for believing you took it from the thing called London Cries, which children play with.”  Might she have had in mind a toy like the one shown below, where a long engraved strip is wound around rollers inside a box, so that the pictures could be made to scroll past the viewer?  This show box of London street criers been halted at the picture of an itinerant peep-show operator, with his equipment strapped on his back.

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Cotsen 12683

These  toys were sold by James Kirk, an engraver who was one of the three sons of the medal and gem engraver John Kirk (1701-1761). Newspaper advertisements in the early 1750s indicate that pere Kirk, whose shop was located on the north side of St. Paul’s Church yard, went in with his son James, the proprietor of a toyshop a stone’s throw away, to sell sets of money weights.  James was an enterprising entrepreneur in his own right, issuing tokens with pictures of the shop’s interior one side to promote the premises, which boasted a grotto and waterworks to enhance the shopping experience.  Like many eighteenth-century booksellers, or engravers, Kirk stocked sundries like Woodcock’s sticking plaster, an early type of Bandaid; this elaborate engraved advertisement is pasted down on the rear wrapper of one of his pamphlets of London cries.

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Cotsen 153707

Kirk does not seem to have produced many juveniles, but he had a strategy to keep them fresh over the years.  His London cries has quite a complicated history, which I was able to pull together from a passel of newspaper advertisements, the three Kirk London cries show boxes, and one Kirk pamphlet of London cries in the Cotsen collection.  What it all shows is that James Kirk liked to repackage the same content in three or more formats.

It  began in February 13, 1755 with an advertisement for four engraved prints, each with twelve different street criers redrawn from the celebrated prints of Marcellus Laroon.  The set of prints could be purchased for a shilling or in little three-penny pamphlets, each consisting of one sheet of  criers.  Below are the title page, the criers of green peas, writing ink and pens, and pins from one of the pamphlets in Cotsen.

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Cotsen 153707

153707plate[1]

Cotsen 153707, leaf [2].

153707plate[9]

Cotsen 153707, leaf [10].

153707plate[10]

Cotsen 153707, leaf [11].

By February 7, 1756, Kirk was advertising the London cries in a new format: “made up in boxes, on Rollers. Very fit to amuse Children and help them forward their learning.”  Notice that he doesn’t call them show boxes or give a price.  In an advertisement the next week, a second show box repackaging a set of illustrated Aesop’s fables pamphlets was offered for sale at eight pence, which is not, relatively speaking, all that dear for what it was.

As detailed as the advertisements are, they don’t tell the whole story.  Examining individual copies reveals some variants the ads don’t mention. Two of Cotsen’s show boxes, 12683 and 30501, have the same sequence of street peddlers, but differ in  small details. The panoramas are printed on two paper stocks:  30501 is printed on faded blue paper, while 12683 is on the more usual ivory.  The illustrations in 12683 are hand-colored.  Booksellers and engravers normally advertise when a title is available in  plain and colored versions, so I wonder if 12683’s missing glass may have been removed at some point (and never replaced) so that  that the strip could be watercolored one image at a time without having to take it out of the box and off the rollers.  The watercolorist was almost certainly no professional.

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The various pigs the man is selling are not alive, but made of pastry. Cotsen 12683.

I couldn’t find any newspaper advertisements for Cotsen’s third specimen of a Kirk cries moving panorama. It’s hard to tell if it originally had a title page, but there is no doubt that it was produced from another plate, because it is an alphabet illustrated with a completely different set of criers printed on bluish paper.  It’s not in original condition: clumsy repairs on the box cover up the original Dutch gilt paper and flimsy little handles have been substituted for the round knobs on the bottom.  An old manuscript with calculations has been cut up to reattach the left hand edge of the strip to the roller.

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Moving panorama of an alphabet of London cries. Cotsen 425.

If only an antiquarian bookseller would quote Cotsen the fourth manifestation of Kirk’s London cries–the “pastime cards”  advertised March 26 1757 nicely colored for  5 shillings a deck, a good deal more than the show boxes…  I’ve not succeeded in finding any reproductions of cards in the cries set, but they would have looked something like the Aesop cards below.

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Surely Kirk had to engrave new plates in order to insert the symbols differentiating the court and pips cards, but forty-eight of the fifty-two street criers could have been redrawn from the original set of cries plates.  If the alphabet moving panorama was published by 1757, then there was no need to drawn any new figures (see the addenda at the end for all the peddlers found in the Kirks in Cotsen).

It’s unlikely that James Kirk invented the miniature moving panorama, but the format has had a long life: Cotsen has almost two dozen later examples of this novelty format.  Kirk’s modest little animations of the “moving market” on the streets of London appeared decades before the advent of huge ones that were among the most popular public entertainments of  the  nineteenth century.

Who knows if the inventors of these more elaborate examples were inspired by toys like these?  There’s room for just two favorite examples from the 1800s.  Here’s S. and J. Fuller’s The Grimacer (ca. 1820?) The top strip  moves across the box vertically and the bottom strip horizontally, so that the heads and torsos of the figures can be amusingly mismatched.  You can see the rollers’ knobs on the bottom and the right hand side of the box.

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Cotsen 811

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Cotsen 811.

The second example shows the animals entering Noah’s ark, which the publisher Betts manufactured in a small and a large version (this is the large one).  The strip is contained in a wooden box attached to the underside of the panel and passes through slots on the left and right of the background on its upper side.  To advance the strip, someone must stand behind the entire apparatus and turn the concealed handles.

bettspictorialnoahsark

Addenda: The Peddlers Represented in the Kirk London Cries

The contents of three of the four plates can be reconstructed from the surviving examples.  To save space, only the product, not the cry has been transcribed.

Plate A (Cryes of London pamphlet: Cotsen 153707)

1. green peas, 2. white-heart onions 3. small coal 4. Seville oranges and lemons, 5. ballads, 6. cherries, 7. song birds, 8. eels, 9. ink and writing pens, 10. pins, 11. herrings, 12. almanacs

Plate B (Cryes of London pamphlet: Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington)

1.Waltho Van Clutterbanck 2.potatoes 3.cotton laces 4. Past twelve o’clock 5. brooms 6. matches 7. sweetheart cakes 8. shrimps 9. bellows 10. periwinkles 11. crab 12.???

Plate C (Moving panorama: Cotsen 30501 and 12683)

1.Mutton or eel pie 2. hot gray peas 3. lines 4. raree show 5. gudgeons 6. long tail pig pastries 7. whiting 8. Holloway cheese cake 9. Scotch cloth 10. gingerbread 11. poor prisoner 12. mops

Peddlers in the alphabet moving panorama (Cotsen 425)

  1. AB walnuts 2. CD old clothes 3. EF Italian flowers 4. GH rabbits 5. IJ milk curds and whey 6. KL door mats 7. MN fresh salad 8. OP pickling cucumbers 9. QR Yorkshire lemon cakes 10. ST strawberries 11. UV kitchen stuff 12. YWZX [sic] chairs to mend

In preparing this post, I drew on Sheila O’Connell’s London 1753, British Map Engravers by Laurence Worms and Ashley Bayton-Williams, Karen Beall’s Kaufrufe und Strassenhandler, and Sean Shesgreen’s Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London.