When Piglets Oversleep: The Award-Winning Picture Book “The Reason for Being Late” by Yao Jia

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.


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

Notes from a Summer Traveler in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi

Part II: Children’s Books and Reading: A Photo Album

Part II of my travel notes annotates photos of my delightful encounters with children’s materials, reading, and entertainment outside the USA. I stayed in Shanghai for several weeks between two children’s literature symposiums that I attended in June and July. (The subtropical city oscillated between relentless, all-day rains and sweltering blaze. Unless part of your goal is to lose weight by taking long walks in what feels like free sauna offered by nature, I do not recommend these months as the best time for visiting Shanghai.) Thanks to the itinerary that was kindly arranged for me by the University of Leeds, I had the unexpected luck of spending a few eye-opening hours at Abu Dhabi International Airport during my connecting flight from Shanghai to Britain.

Shanghai, China

The Bund, Shanghai

A night view from the Bund, Shanghai (June 2016).

Shanghai is historically the center of the publishing industry in China. Except for the disruption of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Shanghai dominated the publishing of Chinese comic books and books for youth during the twentieth century.

Shanghai Library

Shanghai Library, Confucius

View from the lobby of the Shanghai Library through large windows into a peaceful back garden, where a statue of Confucius stands as a symbol of great learning.

Shanghai Library, Disney

An exhibition on the impact of the earliest Disney films on popular culture in Shanghai. Photo taken at the Shanghai Library, June 13, 2016.

The first Disney theme park in mainland China was opened in Shanghai on June 16, 2016, causing plenty of sensation among the locals. Drawing on its rich Republic of China collection, the Shanghai Library offered a timely exhibition on the history of how Disney animated films swept over Shanghai as early as the 1930s and became an integrated part of Chinese popular culture.

Shanghai Book City

Shanghai Book City

Shanghai Book CityShanghai Book City, as its boastful name promises, is the largest bookstore in Shanghai and takes up seven massive floors. The sixth floor is dedicated to children’s materials, offering books, toys, as well as game areas, programming space, and a newly opened fee-based subscription library of picture books. The most prominent format on display is large, colorful picture books, spreading over half of the entire floor. Text-oriented books for older readers and teens are tucked away on the side. The layout has reversed what it was like a decade ago, reflecting major growth in the translation, publishing, and consumption of picture books for preschoolers in China since 2000. Chinese children’s books used to target young independent readers mainly. Should a parent bring a toddler to the store ten years ago, they would have had to choose from only a couple rows of picture books shelved in a tight corner.

The Former Residence of Comic Artist Zhang Leping

Zhang Leping, Sanmao

Right: The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant (三毛流浪记) by Zhang Leping. Shanghai: Min li shu dian, 1950. (Cotsen 91127876 Vol. 4)

Numerous Chinese authors and artists who wrote and illustrated children’s literature were based in Shanghai. Among them was Zhang Leping (1910-1992), arguably the most successful Chinese comic artist during the twentieth century. His former residence has been made into a modest museum free to the public. Adorning the yard of his house is a sculpture of Sanmao, the three-haired protagonist of Zhang’s nearly wordless comics series. The sculpture is based on a panel from The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant, in which the orphaned and homeless boy is constantly in search for food, clothing, and shelter while trying to survive in a postwar Shanghai. He unknowingly joins a gang of thieves and receives an over-sized gown to cover his naked body. In the most economical visual language of comics, Zhang exaggerates the length of time it takes a scrawny Sanmao to finish buttoning the large garment. The boy’s visible awkwardness in putting on the gang member’s clothing, as the story unfolds, foreshadows how his kindness and empathy would make him an “incorrigible” misfit in the criminal group.

Zhang LepingThis is the study where the late comic artist Zhang Leping, dubbed “Father of Sanmao,” worked and received visitors after 1950. Interestingly, the two most important works of Zhang, Sanmao Joins the Army (三毛从军记, 1946) and The Wanderings of Sanmao the Vagrant (1947) were both created before he moved into this seemingly spacious and comfortable house. Not that the house was at fault, but perhaps more of an indication that even an enviable material condition for creative work could not mitigate the post-1949 constraints on intellectual and artistic freedom in China.

If you are as hapless a tourist as I was and will visit the museum in the unwelcoming hot season, I have a gentle reminder for you: arm yourself with mosquito repellent before entering the vicinity. The blood-suckers outside Zhang’s residence were so ferocious that the security guard had a free bottle of spray ready for visitors. The staff warmly told me to help myself with the chemical, because this was “on taxpayers.” The experience increased my admiration for Zhang Leping even more, as I imagined the artist might have had to endure the same attacks every long summer.

Folk Art

A Chinese shadow theatre at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery, Shanghai. (photo courtesy of Dr. Yeojoo Lim)

A Chinese shadow theatre at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery, Shanghai. (photo courtesy of Dr. Yeojoo Lim)

A small shadow play museum is located in Qibao Old Town, a tourist attraction in a suburban district of Shanghai. A spider web of metro system that has been continuously expanded over the past two decades makes the old town, once a remote part of Shanghai, easy to reach. The shadow play museum displays shadow figures and related artworks that were an important part of folk life in rural Qibao between the late Qing dynasty and the Republic of China. (Princeton University has held an exhibition of Chinese shadow figures and maintains a database of digitized shadow figures images.)

shadow figure, Monkey King

Shadow figure Monkey King from Journey to the West, exhibited at the Qibao Shadow Play Art Gallery.

dough figurine Monkey KingI could not resist another opportunity to document the prevalence of Monkey King in Chinese folk culture. This was an edible dough figurine of Monkey, freshly kneaded, shaped, and sold at a shop in Qibao. The dough should taste sweet, but I would not dream of gobbling up the trickster. He is famous for turning into a tiny mischievous bug and making you regret and consent to whatever unpleasant demand he shouts out gleefully from inside your belly–to surrender your magic heirloom fire-extinguishing fan, or to give him the password of your smart phone, for example.

Kids Still Read Today

young readers in a Shanghai district public libraryYes, they do. I spied on them in the children’s reading room of a district public library in Shanghai on a hot, hypnotizing Saturday afternoon in June. Children and teens read, took notes, did homework, and some of them also couldn’t stop checking their smart phones. The plastic chairs were hard; the reading tables were plain; and the seating was a bit crowded. A quiet afternoon in the cool public library, however, was still a pleasant escape for those lucky children who happened to live close by. Many Chinese families, even if they own air-conditioning at home, reserve the machine for the most unbearable heat waves. Free air-conditioning alone makes a trip to the public library worthwhile.

Children’s clay art displayed in the Minhang District Library, Shanghai.

young readers in the subway, ShanghaiThese two young school girls, engrossed in children’s books on paper in the subway, were in the minority among an army of adult passengers who were equally engrossed in (or possessed by) their smart phones.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Abu Dhabi was the first city where I stopped (at its international airport anyway) during my 30-hour, door-to-door journey from Shanghai, China to the University of Leeds campus. I didn’t expect to walk off the jet bridge into a library, newly opened in April 2016.

“Enjoy your favourite book at Abu Dhabi Airport Library.”

reading area, Abu Dhabi International Airport“This area is for reading only.”–A signage erected in the prime seating area of the airport, granting readers the privilege of enjoying comfortable chairs, shelves of books, and natural light.

board book in ArabicLet’s see what books we have got here. A board book features a Muslim woman on the page, and the Arabic text goes, “Mama said, ‘Tomorrow will be Eid.'”*

picture book in ArabicThe picture book might have been a translated work. (Forgive me for being illiterate in Arabic. Please share in the comment box what you know about the two books above.)

Read and RiseArabic-English bilingual slogan “Read and Rise” on a column. In the Arabic parallel text, “naqraʼ li-nartaqī,” there is alliteration at the beginning of each verb, and the roots of the verbs have similar sounds: qaraʼa and raqiya. Kudos to whoever designed the slogan for achieving alliteration in two distinct languages simultaneously. The literal meaning of the Arabic passage is “let’s read so that we may rise.”

quote from Sheikh ZayedA quote that puts great value in education, from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was the driving forces behind the formation of the United Arab Emirates and its first president, 1971-2004.

quote of Sheikh ZayedAnother quote of Sheikh Zayed, “The education of our people as a goal in itself is a great wealth in which we take pride, for knowledge is the wealth on which we are building our future.”

magic lampDue to a mistake I will not relate here, I failed to bring back a genie when the golden opportunity presented itself.

camelsI was also unable to bring back any of these desert friends, cheerful or aloof, as a reminder of my summer travel. Regardless, next time I see a chance to rate libraries, I will not forget to vote Abu Dhabi as the most hospitable airport library.


My heartfelt thanks to Dr. Denise L. Soufi, a Middle Eastern expert, for graciously deciphering and explaining the Arabic text for me in preparation for this photo essay. All errors are mine.