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.

Acknowledgment

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

Monkey Craze

a Monkey King performer on the street of New York City

A handsome Monkey King on the street of New York City. The soft-spoken performer, whose name I neglected to ask, was from Wenzhou, a coastal city in the province of Zhejiang, China. Photo taken on January 3, 2016.

The Monkey King Cannot Somersault out of Buddha's Palm

Front: [The Monkey King Cannot Somersault out of Buddha’s Palm] An amulet based on the legend of Monkey’s fight again Buddha. Made by the “lost wax method” of casting in brass, 32 mm. Acquired in Bangkok, Thailand. Curtesy of Tara McGowan, Japanese Metadata Assistant at Cotsen, and Kaja McGowan, the Director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University.

The lunar new year of 2016, or the Year of the Monkey according to Chinese zodiac, kicked off on Monday, February 8th. This new year is perhaps the most beloved of all to the Chinese, even more popular than the Year of the Dragon, mainly because the humanoid animal ties to the Monkey King, a folklore character and supernatural being that has fascinated the Chinese for centuries. The Monkey’s story was loosely based on the pilgrimage of Xuanzang (玄奘), a monk who took the Silk Road in the early Tang dynasty to obtain original Buddhist scriptures from India. In folk imagination as well as in Journey to the West (西游记, hereafter Journey), a Chinese novel published in the sixteenth century, Monkey is a rebel-turned disciple and escort of a fictionalized Xuanzang, who is destined to conquer eighty-one ordeals before attaining Buddhahood. Hero and trickster rolled into one, brave and defiant, funny but flawed, Monkey has been a perennial source of inspiration for every medium and format of literature, art, and entertainment ranging from shadow plays to children’s literature to video games. Journey has also circulated widely in Japan and other East and Southeast Asian countries. To celebrate the Year of the Monkey, we gingerly awakened more than a dozen monkeys from the stacks of the Cotsen Children’s Library and invite them to greet the world–gingerly, because, if you are familiar with Journey, Monkey is known to wreak havoc when rubbed the wrong way.

Monkey King From the Chinese Collection

The Illustrated and Annotated Journey to the West

The Illustrated and Annotated Journey to the West (繪圖加批西遊記). 上海: 共和書局, 1919. 8 volumes. (Cotsen 75021)

Monkey (lower left) as depicted in an illustrated version of the Journey published in the early Republic of China. Other figures in the picture include his master Xuanzang, his fellow disciples Pigsy and Sandy, Emperor Taizong of Tang, and Chancellor Wei Zheng.

Journey to the West

Journey to the West (西遊記). China, [1920s?] Hanging scrolls. (Cotsen 72805)

One panel from a set of hanging scrolls illustrates a scene from Chapter 3 of Journey, “The Four Seas and Thousand Mountains All Bow to Submit.” Wild beasts and demon kings come to pay homage to Monkey, after he successfully obtains weapons for his monkey kingdom. Their outfits closely resemble costume of traditional Chinese opera.

Little Friends 1956

Little Friends (小朋友). 1956, no. 6. Cover art by Ye Jun (叶軍) and Dong Tianye (董天野). (Cotsen 153026)

First launched in Shanghai in 1922, Little Friends is the longest-running children’s magazine in China. The cover of this issue depicts the legendary battle between Monkey and Erlang, a deity.

Drawing for Young People (少年儿童图画). Volume 7. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1963. "The Show is On!" by Yao Zhongyu. (Cotsen 63786)

Drawing for Young People (少年儿童图画). Volume 7. 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1963. “The Show is On!” by Yao Zhongyu. (Cotsen 63786)

A picture in a fine arts textbook for the fourth grade in elementary school. Two children play puppet theatre on a make-shift stage, admired by a loyal audience that is their toys. Monkey, the main character of the show, wears a facial mask in the signature style of Peking Opera.

The Diary of Lei Feng

The Diary of Lei Feng (雷鋒日記). 北京: 解放軍文艺社, 1963. (Cotsen N-000034)

The heroic Monkey even found his way into another hero’s diary. Lei Feng (1940-1962) was a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army of China and, after his death from an accident, was characterized as a selfless Communist for the entire nation to emulate. In his posthumously published diary, Lei commented on Monkey Thrice Subdues the White-Bone Demon, a movie he watched in February 1962. He analyzed each character in the political context of Communism-Imperialism conflicts and concluded that a feisty and sharp-eyed Monkey has a lot to teach about fighting revisionist enemies.

Sun Wukong Wreaks Havoc in the Atomic World (孙悟空大闹原子世界) / Guo Yishi (郭以实); illustrated by Yan Shanchun (阎善春). 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1980. (Cotsen 42623)

Sun Wukong Wreaks Havoc in the Atomic World (孙悟空大闹原子世界) / Guo Yishi (郭以实); illustrated by Yan Shanchun (阎善春). 上海: 少年儿童出版社, 1980. (Cotsen 42623)

Will his ancient magic power keep Monkey invincible in a futuristic world driven by atomic science? We shall find out from this science fiction published in post-Cultural Revolution China, after its new leader Deng Xiaoping navigated the nation away from class struggle and emphasized science and technology as forces of productivity.

Seventy-two Transformations (七十二变) / by Su Gang (苏刚). 成都: 四川人民出版社, 1980. 14 leaves. (Cotsen B-000003)

Seventy-two Transformations (七十二变) / by Su Gang (苏刚). 成都: 四川人民出版社, 1980. 14 leaves. (Cotsen B-000003)

This split-page book is based on one of Monkey’s famous powers: transformation. He would have been an A+ student if he were in Professor McGonagall’s Transfiguration class, because he excels in freely transforming himself into any age, gender, species, object, and size. During the treacherous pilgrimage, Monkey has to resort to his transformation skills often to save everybody’s skin. Each of the 14 leaves of the book is divided into three parts: head, upper body, and lower body. The preface informs young readers that, instead of the proverbial 72 transformations that Monkey is known to be capable of, this book allows him to achieve 2,744 types of shapeshifting. Is that true? You do the math.

Sun Wukong (孙悟空). 1985, no. 2. 北京: 中国电影出版社. (Cotsen 90239)

Sun Wukong (孙悟空). 1985, no. 2. 北京: 中国电影出版社. (Cotsen 90239)

That Monkey’s name “SUN Wukong” was adopted by a children’s magazine as its title attests his enduring charm. Launched by the China Film Press thirty-six years ago in 1980, another year of the Monkey, SUN Wukong was a bimonthly pictorial magazine devoted to animated films and comic strips. Its main offering was animated spin-offs printed in full color, which must have been welcomed during much of the 1980s, when household ownership of television sets in China was so low that many Chinese used to gather at a neighbor’s house to watch TV. The magazine title on its cover is the brush calligraphy of SONG Qingling (宋庆龄, 1893-1981), the widow of President SUN Yat-sen and a leader of children’s literacy and welfare issues in China. Cotsen’s copy of the magazine was formerly part of the collection of an elementary school library in Beijing.

Journey to the West: Wukong Takes in Bajie (西游记: 悟空降八戒). [1980s] 11 sheets. (Cotsen 92466)

Journey to the West: Wukong Takes in Bajie (西游记: 悟空降八戒). [1980s] 11 sheets. (Cotsen 92466)

The episode in which Monkey takes in Pigsy as his fellow disciple is the subject matter of a set of ten postcards issued by the Nanjing Post Office in the 1980s. Cotsen’s holding is the original art work, which was outlined in pen and colored. The visual style of Monkey and Pigsy are vaguely reminiscent of shadow puppets.

Little Friends (小朋友). 1985, no. 10. "Golden Snub-Nosed Monkeys Visit Japan," papercutting by Kuromiya Masae (黒宮正栄). (Cotsen 153026)

Little Friends (小朋友). 1985, no. 10. “Golden Snub-Nosed Monkeys Visit Japan,” papercutting by Kuromiya Masae (黒宮正栄). (Cotsen 153026)

As a segue into Monkey in the Japanese collection, this last picture was created by a Japanese papercutting artist but published in the Little Friends magazine in China. Two amiable-looking monkeys fly towards Mount Fuji through a sky that rains cherry blossom petals. The image refers to an exhibition of endangered golden snub-nosed monkeys sent from China to Japan as part of animal diplomacy. A subtle reference to the Monkey King–traveling by riding a cloud is another of Monkey’s famous skills–sweetens the message of Sino-Japanese friendship, because it implies that these monkey ambassadors would be warmly received in Japan, just like the legend of Monkey had become part of Japanese popular culture. The two countries experienced a honeymoon period during the 1980s, when Chinese public memory of Japanese war crimes remained dormant and Japan’s wartime atrocities and responsibilities had not begun to dominate public discourse on Sino-Japanese relations.

Monkey King From the Japanese Collection

Shelves and shelves of Monkey King stories or editions and adaptations of Journey to the West in the Cotsen Children's Library. Photo taken from Cotsen's Japanese section.

Shelves and shelves of Monkey King stories or editions and adaptations of Journey to the West in the Cotsen Children’s Library. Photo taken from Cotsen’s Japanese section.

The earliest Japanese translations of Journey in the Cotsen Children’s Library were dated in the 1780s. Monkey’s story has inspired illustrated editions, retellings, sequels, playing cards, sugoroku games, and media adaptations in Japan.

Journey to the West

Journey to the West (繪本西遊記初編) / translated by Kutsuki Sanjin (口木山人); illustrated by Ōhara Tōya (大原東野). [大坂]: 前川文榮堂, [1806?]. (Cotsen 90024)

Xuanzang, Monkey, and Pigsy as imagined in one of the earliest illustrated Japanese editions of Journey.

Journey to the West (西遊記) / by Nakagawa Ryūgai (中川史英); illustrated by Yoshimoto Yuki (吉本有機). 東京: 富里昇進堂發行, 1910. (Cotsen 99402)

Journey to the West (西遊記) / by Nakagawa Ryūgai (中川史英); illustrated by Yoshimoto Yuki (吉本有機). 東京: 富里昇進堂發行, 1910. (Cotsen 99402)

A picture book version of Journey. This page portrays the battle between Monkey and Princess Iron Fan. In what seems like a prescient adoption of DNA cloning technology, Monkey produces copies of himself from his own hair to outnumber enemies in desperate situations.

Sun Wukong's Journey to the West: A Sugoroku Game (孫悟空西遊記雙六) / illustrated by Tani Senba (谷洗馬). 東京: 日本飛行研究會, 1920. (Cotsen 153579)

Sun Wukong’s Journey to the West: A Sugoroku Game (孫悟空西遊記雙六) / illustrated by Tani Senba (谷洗馬). 東京: 日本飛行研究會, 1920. (Cotsen 153579)

A sugoroku gameboard based on Journey, beginning with how Monkey assumes leadership by discovering a hidden cave behind a waterfall for his fellow monkeys and ending with a visit he pays to the moon palace.

Xuanzang’s Work

Tripiṭaka. Sūtrapiṭaka. Prajñāpāramitā(大般若波羅蜜多經). Volume 429 / translated by Xuanzang. China, 1117. (Scheide Library 3.1.16)

It wouldn’t be complete to end this post without mentioning the Buddhist canons that had spurred Xuanzang’s trek to India. Princeton University Library houses multiple editions of Tripiṭaka. Sūtrapiṭaka. Prajñāpāramitā(大般若波羅蜜多經), which Xuanzang is attributed to have translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. The earliest three volumes held at Princeton were printed between AD 1112 and AD 1310 during the Song dynasty (East Asian Library and William H. Scheide Library). Volume 358 of the scripture, copied in brush pen on a scroll by a Japanese monk in AD 1259, has been shared at the Princeton University Digital Library.