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!

Escapees from an Exhibition: Some Curious “Alice in Wonderland” Items…

Alice once fell asleep and she was dreaming. / When she awoke, she started screaming... "Jabberwocky: Novelty Fox Trot Song," [©1921]. (Cotsen SM 1965)

Alice once fell asleep and she was dreaming. /
When she awoke, she started screaming… “Jabberwocky: Novelty Fox Trot Song,” [©1921]. (Cotsen SM 1965)

Exhibitions of illustrated books, manuscripts, ephemera and other “curiosities” are great ways of highlighting certain aspects of “rare” collections that usually don’t otherwise see the light of day. This is certainly true for items relating to Alice in Wonderland, due to the book’s ongoing popularity and all the “variations on the original theme” by later illustrators, pop-up book designers, and manufacturers of collateral marketing paraphernalia. Imagine seeing a Through the Looking Glass biscuit tin once owned by Lewis Carroll’s sister! Or depictions of Alice as a 1920s flapper girl or as grown-up woman waking from a nightmare dream in a musical score. Or a number of later illustrators’ reinterpretations of John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice.

One problem, though, is that an exhibition (particularly a “live” one) can never accommodate everything. There are usually just too many books and items to display them all! Selecting from among all these items was one of the (fun) challenges in curating Cotsen’s “Alice after Alice” exhibition, which will soon be ending its run (extended from its original July 15 end-date). With that in mind, I thought it might be amusing to feature here some of the “also-rans” and items that we just didn’t have room for in the display cases.

First up, is perhaps Cotsen Library’s smallest version of Alice, measuring just 7 cm (2 ¾ inches) in height: a 1998 Russian edition, Alisa v strane chudes. The pictorial paper dust-jacket shows a smiling Alice with a somewhat modern, but essentially timeless look — fitting perhaps with the timeless beginning of Alice: “All in the golden afternoon…”

Minaiture Book version of Alice

Cover of Russian miniature edition of “Alice” — Alisa v strane chudes — with a penny for size comparison (Cotsen 153255)

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Alice as imagined by illustrator Ekaterina Shishlova

But things really get interesting when we open the book and see Ekaterina Shishlova’s language-transcending, process-printed color illustrations, which accompany the Russian text. In one, Alice herself is shown as a doe-eyed, brown-haired girl, full of perplexity, when trying to decide what to make of the key after she tumbles down into Wonderland. An interesting ‘take” on a character depicted many different ways by various illustrators in the 150 years since the first edition (a number of which were featured in the “Alice after Alice” exhibition)..

But I think Shishlova’s real genius manifests itself in her depictions of Alice tumbling down into Wonderland and a too-large Alice peeking through the tiny door.

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Alice tumbles down into Wonderland

In the first, Alice seems to be tumbling down into a well-cum-malestrom, along with a framed picture (the river-bank scene where her sister had been reading to her?) and some leaves from tree Alice was sitting under; you can almost feel the downward motion! Note the tiny circle of sunny sky at the top of the well. And how about Alice’s hand, foregrounded so it looks like the disembodied hand of some giant? Brilliant!

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“Big” Alice peering though the tiny door…

I also particularly like Shishlova’s depiction of Alice peering through the door she’s too big to go through before swigging from the “Drink Me” bottle. The garden seems full of mysterious plants, befitting an enchanted place; and note the hint of red from the Queen of Hearts garden to come.  And how about Alice’s huge eye peering through the door? While great in and of itself, this illustration seems especially perfect for a miniature book!  A big eye peering into a brave new miniature world…

"I'm late, I'm late..."

I’m late, I’m late…

Other wonderful depictions of Wonderland characters in this book include the White Rabbit, wearing what looks like a red-and-blue livery of some sort with a giant floppy hat, mouth agape, and holding his packet-watch, which looms large in the foreground and features a cameo portrait of a harridan-like woman. Is it the Queen of Hearts?

Queen of Hearts

Shishlova’s Queen of Hearts

Speaking of the Queen, take a look at Shishlova’s reimagining of her — a comically scary figure, recalling the proverbial evil step-mother of fairy tales, here with a fawning courtier draped over her. Definitely recognizable as the Queen of Hearts, but also quite distinctive, in the best tradition of illustrators’ reimaginings of Tenniel’s originals!

Apart from the specific delights of this tiny Russian edition, it also serves as a reminder that Alice has been translated into some 174 different languages, including Afrikaans, Latin, Cornish, Welsh, and Tongan.

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“26 Letters of Lewis Carroll,” fanned out for display, as per the book designer’s suggestion. The Q image is (of course!) the Queen of Hearts (Cotsen 46698)

Another “curious” item that didn’t quite make it into the exhibition is titled Twenty-Six Letters of Lewis Carroll, a 1998 limited printing of 26 letters that Carroll actually wrote to various children, including Alice Liddell (the “real” Alice) and Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. What makes this collection so interesting is the presentation. Each of the letters — one for each letter of the alphabet — is housed within an envelope with an illustration based on a Tenniel original: the whole collection of illustrations forming something of a rebus alphabet (A is for Alice, B for beeQ is for Queen…).  All the envelopes are bound together within a bright red “piano hinge binding,” designed so that the letters can be fanned out for display in a semi-circle. (The bound collection even comes with a descriptive sheet from the book designer, Linda K. Johnson, suggesting display options–no “mere” child’s toy, this!)

TC

The list of letter recipients: from A (Alice Compton) to Z (Zoe Dodgson)

Carroll corresponded with a large number of “child friends” throughout his career and wrote special Christmas or holiday letters or messages to some, including Alice. The pictorial Table of Contents page provides some of of the scope of this correspondence.

Let’s take a look at just two of the letters: Carroll’s letter to Alice Lidell and her sisters and his letter to Princess Alice, Duchess of Altlone (aka. granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who is sometimes regarded as Tenniel’s inspiration for the Queen of Hearts).

Alice

My dear Lorena, Alice, and Edith…

The letter to the Liddells: Lorina, Alice, and Edith (addressed to them essentially in order of their ages) is housed in an envelope with an illustration of a lion (L is for Lion) and the letter itself has the lion illustration too, as you can see. It’s addressed to “My dear…” as were many of Carroll’s letters to children. He didn’t write to children as a celebrity author or a condescending adult, but rather as a friend, which is probably one reason he was so popular with them.

As you can see, the letter also contains an acrostic poem, the first letter of each line spelling out a letter in the three girls’ names — Lorina, Alice, Edith — Carroll loved all sorts of puzzles, based on words and math alike. He actually wrote the original version of this letter on the flyleaf of a book he gave the girls as a Christmas present: Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (with no lion pictured, though!). The stilted formal style of this letter, although typical of both the time and some of Carroll’s other writings, is quite unlike that in Alice — probably a good thing in terms of the lasting appeal of the book!

p

My dear Princess…

In another letter — P for Princess (Alice), illustrated here with a crowned regal-looking version of Wonderland’s Alice — features a letter Carroll actually wrote to Princess Alice, Victoria’s granddaughter, as well as another acrostic poem. The letter has a remarkably conversational tone (quite unlike the poems), which is doubly remarkable since Carroll was writing to a royal princess at a time when the social bounds between “commoners and royals were quite pronounced. Carroll had actually met Princess Alice previously, something he alludes to in his letter (“before you’ve forgotten me…”). After the 1865 publication of Alice, his celebrity as best-selling author allowed him an entree to social levels quite impossible for a math don (his “day job” as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), something he clearly relished.

The original letter accompanied a “Through the Looking Glass Biscuit Tin” that Carroll sent to Princess Alice, after he had licensed Barringer, Wallis & Manners to produce the tins as a purchase incentive for biscuits (“cookies” to those of us in the USA). Although Carroll complained about the firm’s commercialism in using the tins to encourage purchase of their products, this didn’t stop him from requesting several hundred freebies to give away to various people!

AliceLetters5.3

Whenever your brother Charlie is very naughty, just pop him in [the biscuit tin] and shut the lid!

Apart from the social-climbing aspect of this letter, what makes it interesting to me is Carroll’s tongue-in-cheek advice to Princess Alice: the idea that she should “pop” her annoying little brother, Charlie, into the tin and shut the lid whenever he was “very naughty”! Take a look at the highlighted text. Imagine an author passing along that sort of advice to a kid today!

Princeton has one of these original biscuit tins in our Parrish collection, ours formerly owned by Carroll’s sister, Louisa. Even though the tin is displayed in Cotsen Library’s “Alice after Alice” exhibition, I thought you might like to see it here — from several different angles, something not really feasible in the actual “static” exhibition.

Tin1

Front of the “Looking Glass Biscuit Tin”: Alice & the Knights (Parrish Dodgson 967)

Tin2

One side of the tin: Alice & Humpty Dumpty

Tin4

Side two: Alice, the White King, and “the Messenger”

Tin3

Back of the tin: Alice, Tweedledee & Tweedledum, and the Red Queen

 

top

Top of the tin: Alice goes through the looking glass

A final “escapee” from the exhibition is a Jecktor Company Alice in Wonderland movie filmstrip from 1933. As you can see, it’s an early form of a movie, printed on a translucent paper strip with two rows of images; it’s wound on a wooden spool and would probably be about 2 feet long if fully unrolled.

film

“Alice in Wonderland” filmstrip (#165) by Jecktor Co., 1933 (Cotsen 40848)

But when looking at the Jecktor Alice more closely for this blog posting, I noticed a curious thing: the images on the top and bottom of the filmstrip are slightly different — I’d assumed that the parallel images would be the same, creating some sort of “stereo” or three-dimensional effect when viewed while they moved in some way. (Take a look at the photos above/below and you’ll see what I mean.) So I did what most of us do these days when looking for basic information; I looked online.

movie

“Alice in Wonderland” filmstrip: Alice tumbles down into Wonderland… (note the differences between the images on the top and bottom rows)

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Jecktor projector and movie-strips (image from: http://www.icollector.com/)

I learned that Jecktor (based in New York City at 200 5th Avenue, close to the Flatiron Building — quite a toney address now) was an early manufacturer of home movie projectors and gramophone-projector combos gizmos in the 1930s — Jecktor/projector, get it? They made at least 12 filmstrips of popular children’s titles, including Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, and Tom Sawyer. These filmstrips were designed to be played back using an ingenious, but very unusual-looking, playback device (that combines aspects of a hand projector with a gramophone in some cases). It even had its own US patent: #1,929,353. Take a look at it!

The projector had two lenses and a shutter that flipped the projected image from top to bottom row, and back again, when the film was hand-cranked through the projector, thereby creating the effect of animation (not unlike a flip-book, but much more mechanically complex).

qalice

“Alice” filmstrip: sequence showing Alice shrinking and getting taller…

So that’s why the images on the top and bottom rows are different — shifting from one to another enhanced the  “moving picture” effect that the changing images in each parallel row create as the film was unrolled. (If you’d like to find out more about these filmstrips, the projector, and see an animated clip of Alice, take a look at the YouTube clip from the University of Texas’s Ransom Center, which also explains more about how it all works and describes a conservation project on their own Alice filmstrip for a recent exhibition.)

projector 2

“Talkie Jecktor” projector and gramophone unit (image from” Skinner Auctions, https://www.skinnerinc.com/)

But that’s not all. Some of these projectors also had a record-playing device on top, which enabled playing of what looks like a 78 rpm record, presumably as some sort of a musical soundtrack or perhaps even some sort of dialogue, although synchronizing the movie and filmstrip would have been very very difficult. In the 1930s, commercial movies with soundtracks were still newfangled technical marvels, so I would have guessed that the record would play music — not unlike that heard in many cartoons in the 1940s-1960s — early Mickey Mouse, for instance. (Sometimes the accompanying music was classical music too — William Tell Overture, anyone?) But the box identifies the projector-cum-gramophone as a “Talkie Jector,” so maybe the record did indeed play dialogue? But I prefer to think of Alice in Wonderland set to classical music. What a combination! What music would you select?