The Good Things That Come out of Collisions


Paopao Zhen / written by Yadong; illustrated by Maikexiaokui. Jinan, China: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015. (Cotsen N-000731)

In a small town named the Run Run Town, everybody likes to run fast. They run and run, and “Wham!”—it is inevitable that they will collide into each other.

So begins The Run Run Town 跑跑镇, a Chinese picture book written by Yadong 亚东 and illustrated by Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (Tomorrow Publishing House, 2015). What happens after every collision is a playful rendition of the idea of “combination,” which, as the author points out in the afterword, is important in everything from the origin of life to written language, human imagination, science discoveries, and inventions. He gives two great examples: atoms combine to form molecules; combinations lead to innovations and the majority of patented inventions.



How the porcupine fish got its spikes, explained by a “collision theory.”

Some of the “combinations” in the picture books are whimsically fun. A cactus pot scuttles. A small fish rushes. They collide into each other right around the street corner and, voilà, a porcupine fish appears! A princess collides into a dolphin. Guess what we get? A mermaid! In the Run Run Town, even mountains are restless and don’t like to stay put. When a fire-breathing dragon crashes into a wandering mountain, a volcano is born.



How the owl got its night vision, explained by a “collision theory.”

Some combinations are inspired by Chinese language and culture. Why would the collision of a cat and an eagle produce an owl? Because in the Chinese vocabulary, “owl” is “mao tou ying 猫头鹰,” or “cat-headed eagle.” Steamed bread (馒头) and meat balls bump into each other head-on, and delicious steamed buns (包子) are ready to be served. If you are familiar with dim sum, you will appreciate that steamed buns with savory fillings are more popular than plain steamed bread.


跑跑镇Other combinations are based on science. A blotch of blue and a blotch of yellow rush to each other and merge into a splash of green, reminding us of Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni. A young man and a young woman dash towards each other, and, on the last page of the book, a happy nuclear family of three is born.

跑跑镇 跑跑镇What collisions would you imagine if you are asked to add a picture or two to the book? When I tried to answer the question myself, I was tempted to come up with impressive invention ideas, but could not. So instead I will share cases of combinations I have found elsewhere.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, a Chinese classic text that first appeared as early as the fourth century BC, describes mythical beings, gods, and deities. The creatures and stories in the book fascinated young people before children’s literature was intentionally produced in China at the turn of the twentieth century. (Lu Xun 鲁迅, regarded as China’s greatest modern writer, was a famous fan from boyhood.) There is a Chinese version of a “mermaid” in The Classic of Mountains and Seas: residents in a nation called Diren (氐人) are described as having human faces, the bodies of fish, and no feet (Chapter 10). The deity Yingzhao (英招) is another example among the numerous outlandish beings that are imaginatively formed by combining features from familiar species. This deity has a human face, the body of a horse with the stripes of a tiger, and a pair of wings (Chapter 2)—akin to griffins and centaurs found in Western mythology.

Depictions of Diren and Yingzhao in an illustrated edition of The Classic of Mountains and Seas published in the 17th century. (courtesy of the East Asian Library TC368/46.zggk)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling; attributed to Newt Scamander. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Purported to be a textbook copy owned by Harry Potter and having been written on by him and his two best friends. (Cotsen 58436)

The ancient method of combination has been used to create “fantastic beasts” from the fourth century BC to the twenty-first century. The Classic of Mountains and Seas and J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, first published in 2001, bear astonishing similarities in both being a descriptive catalog of mythical creatures and strange beings.

A bowtruckle, a niffler, and an occamy in the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), the latest addition to Harry Potter’s wizarding world. Image sources:,,

Next time you spot those magical beings on the movie screen, you will be able to reverse engineer them and understand how they come to be—the niffler, which has its eye on glittery objects always; the bowtruckle, whose sharp fingers are good at picking locks; the occamy, which fiercely guards its eggs in pure silver; and many more. Combination is not for imagining fantastic creatures only. Isn’t the briefcase carried by Newt Scamander, the Magizoologist, a cross between Pandora’s box and a magical portal like the wardrobe in Narnia? Credence Barebones, the nervous and scared teenager who obeys an oppressive mother, can find his forebear in Hitchcock’s creation—Norman Bates, the young motel manager who has turned mother’s suppression into an uncontrollable destructive force.


Wu, Renchen 吳任臣 (annotator), and Shu Ya 舒雅 (illustrator). Shan Hai Jing Guang Zhu. Shan Hai Jing Tu 山海經廣注.山海經圖. China, between 1667 and 1722.

Yadong 亚东, and Maikexiaokui 麦克小奎 (illustrator). Paopao Zhen 跑跑镇. Di 1 ban. Jinan: Ming tian chu ban she, 2015.


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

How the Automobile Learned to Run: Mikhail Il’in’s book from Soviet Russia to the United States

1931 edition, front wrapper, Cotsen in process

While processing a new group of early Soviet children’s books, I came across two editions of Mikhail Il’in’s Kak Avtomobilʹ Uchilsi︠a︡ Khoditʹ. The second edition, pictured above, was published in 1931 by Molodai︠a︡ Gvardii︠a︡, an imprint of the State publishing monopoly OGIZ (unfortunately we do not have the first edition, published in 1930). The third edition, pictured below, was published in 1934 by another OGIZ imprint: Detskoi Literatury.

1934 edition, front wrapper, Cotsen in process

Mikhail Il’in isn’t a household name for a variety of obvious reasons. Though many of our readers weren’t raised on Soviet picture books in the 30’s, Il’in’s other name might ring a bell: Il’ia Marshak. Il’ia Marshak was the younger brother of the perhaps better known Samuil Marshak; another early writer of Soviet children’s literature. Mikhail Il’in is the pseudonym that Il’ia Marshak used when engaging with scientific and technical subjects meant for his young readers.

Kak Avtomobilʹ Uchilsi︠a︡ Khoditʹ translates to How the automobile learned to run. Crammed full of factual information, this book is about the history of the automobile, from the earliest propelled steam engine to the present day.

But at this point you might be wondering: “Say Ian, I know you don’t speak any Russian (you’ve told us already here and here), so how do you know what this book is about?”.

Well lucky for all of us, while processing this new material I came across a book we already had in the collection: How the Automobile Learned to Run (New York: International Publishers, 1945); a later American translation of this Soviet classic.

Miraculously International Publishers (which specialized in publishing and translating Soviet, Marxist, and Leftist material) managed to produce books during the height of the Red Scare and make it through a Dies Committee hearing.

Front board (ex-library copy), Cotsen 51732

While all three editions deal with the same subject, each book was executed by a different illustrator.

The 1931 edition was illustrated by Natalii︠a︡ Lapshina, who choose to use mostly photo illustrations for the sake of realism:

1931 edition, Spread [2-3]

1931 edition, page 5

The 1934 edition, was illustrated by V. Tambi, who choose to create simple monochrome illustrations:

1934 edition, page [3]

1934 edition, page [21]

1934 edition, Spread 4-5

The International Publishers edition was illustrated by Herbert Kruckman, using more color and a lot more space. Although this edition is attributed to Il’in, a substantial amount of material was added in order to make the book current for 1945 and speak to an American public. But perhaps for obvious reasons, our translator and writer is never attributed:

Each book begins with this introduction about Cugnot’s “Fire cart”, the Grandmother (Babushka) of both the automobile and locomotive. Page [2], Cotsen 51732

Cugnot’s “Fire cart” Page [1], Cotsen 51732

Spread [23-24], Cotsen 51732

Though each illustrator has a distinct style, they all seem to enjoy illustrating one scene in particular: a very explosive episode in 1834 that we might describe as the first major car accident:

Page [7], Cotsen 51732

1934 edition, vignette page 9

1931 edition, page 9

Page [8], Cotsen 51732

Not only do our three illustrators seem to gleefully enjoy this image (Lapshin even drew it twice), but the authors point out that the “picture of the accident” was “printed in all the newspapers”. Although the popularity of this original image might be because of its cautionary power, as our authors contend, we might suppose that folks in 1834 enjoyed a good head rolling as much as the rest of us.

After some web perusing, I managed to find what might be the original image (unfortunately I couldn’t pin down a source). You can judge for yourself about the moralistic virtues of this image appearing in all the newspapers of the time. . .

The Perils of Steam-Coaches