The Good Things That Come out of Collisions

跑跑镇

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.

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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.

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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.

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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: pottermore.com, thisisinsider.com, buzzfeed.com.

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.

Sources:

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.

Acknowledgment

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

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!