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!

Illustrating Summertime Fun in Children’s Books

Little Tot's Holiday Book (Warne: not before 1881) Cotsen 30357

Little Tot’s Holiday Book (Warne & Co.: ca. 1881) Cotsen 30357.

As the days of summer dwindle into a precious few, the long days of sunshine slowly get shorter, and a new school term impends, we all tend to wonder: “Where did the summer go?”

With that thought in mind, we might help keep summer alive a little longer by taking a look at how children’s book illustrators picture summer and its activities.

It certainly didn’t take children’s books to make school kids (and the rest of us) love the prospect of having time off from school and being able to enjoy all the activities available for a few precious months a year. But nineteenth-century books for children certainly stressed summertime fun and vividly pictured outdoor activities, some relatively ‘novel’ ones at the time, such as beach holidays at newly-popular (and accessible) ocean-side resorts. As such, they provide a terrific window onto life and leisure-time activities at the time.

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Children at the shore (detail from Little Tot’s Holiday Book).

Frederick Warne & Co., one of the major nineteenth-century publishers of children’s books readily added “holiday” books picturing seasonal and summertime fun to its line of books. The large format (over 12″ tall) picture book Little Tot’s Holiday Book features vivid, full-page chromolithographed illustrations of children in all sorts of holiday activities (including some in winter). The bright red cloth front cover features a paper onlay of two Victorian children at a seaside locale. Note their fashionable, but modest, attire, fairly typical for the time.

“A Holiday at the Seaside.”

One of the illustrations inside the book shows children happily engaged in a range of contemporary seaside activities: playing on the beach and making sandcastles, taking donkey rides, and riding in a goat cart. I like the background detail of “On the Sands,” which shows a Brighton-like pleasure pier, one of the “novel” aspects of Victorian seaside resorts.

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“Off to the Seashore”…via train.

Another full-page illustration features a train. While trains were always popular with children, particularly boys, why does a train appear in a holiday book? The answer lies in the caption: “off to the seashore.” Trains were a relatively novel form of transportation at this time, and one of the ways that middle-class and more prosperous working-class families went to the seashore in the 1880s.

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Little Tot’s Holiday Book, alternate cover – Cotsen 30357 (c.2)

Little Tot’s Holiday was apparently a popular title, because Warne issued another version of the same title, with identical content, but a different cover, one showing a very different kind of summertime activity. Again, two fashionable and apparently affluent children (similar to the book’s target audience) are featured, but this time they’re presented in a rural setting, getting donkey rides from a young adult from the country (note, his mustache and “rural” attire).

Warne’s picture books repeatedly show children at the seaside, attesting to the popularity of the subject.  Another large-format picture book, Little Tots Playtime Book includes an illustration of a girl on a donkey, a sailor-suited boy, and the family dog on the beach, with sailboats in the background and a nearby patriotic Union Jack, which breaks the perfect (“boring”?) symmetry of the rectangular frame and creates visual interest via a technique sometimes used by painters.

At the seashore again… (Little Tots Playtime Book, ca. 1881) Cotsen 30359

LittleTotsPlaytime-cover

Cover of Little Tots Playtime Book

The general design of the Playtime Book’s cloth cover is essentially the same as that of the Holiday Book (perhaps this was Warne’s stock design for these picture books?), but the inset chromolithographed medallion provides quite a different, more formal and stylized, view of little women in summertime — a somewhat Kate “Greenawayesque” presentation.

Cover of Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, (Routledge & Co., ca. 1899) Cotsen 5633

Speaking of Kate Greenaway (whose presentations of children are famous), let’s take a quick look at how she pictures summer in Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, issued by by George Routledge & Sons in 1889 (and later reissued by Warne in 1899). The cover shows a vignette of children on a rustic teeter-totter. The twenty-four colored wood-engraved illustrations by Edmund Evans show children in Greenaway distinctive style: extremely well-dressed, fashionable, and not very kinetic. The two illustrations below present several girls in caps playing “Battledore & Shuttlecock” (“badminton” to us now) and “Puss in the Corner,” both accompanied by brief descriptions of the games.

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“Battledore & Shuttlecock”

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“Puss in the Corner”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that summertime and beaches are featured only in English books for children — that was definitely not the case! For instance, a German book, In Sommer, from about 1900 features a terrific, highly-saturated color depiction of children playing on the beach on its cover. And illustrations inside the book show children busily involved in other summer activities: flying kites, picking flowers, and making quite a fuss over an apple!

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In Sommer: quite a fuss about an apple in the woods on a bright summer day

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In Sommer: Children and their kites, including the “Man-in-the Moon” and giant clown face

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Children on the beach: cover of In Sommer, ([Germany? ca. 1900]) Cotsen 52215

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another terrific book cover appears on Johnny Headstrong’s Trip to Coney Island, published about 1882 by New York’s McLoughlin Brothers, perhaps the preeminent children’s books publisher in the USA at the time. In the 1880s, Coney Island was a seaside resort for residents of New York City and Brooklyn Heights, a place reached by train and with the same sort of summery, festive ambience as Cape May or Cape Cod, if you can imagine that. The chromolithographed cover of this “toybook” presents an idyllic beach scene via illustrator William Bruton’s artwork, although something in Johnny’s own facial expression suggests another strand in the thread of the story…

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Johnny Headstong’s Trip to Coney Island (McLoughlin Bros, ca. 1882) Cotsen 540

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Johnny arrives at Coney Island with his family (note the masted sailing ships in the background)

Johnny Headstong’s story begins in much the same way as the other summertime books we’ve been looking at – a fashionable youth sets out for the Coney Island seaside resort accompanied by his sister, nanny, and father, a “kindly man of good repute…and wealth.”

But as his name suggests, Johnny is impulsive and lacking in self-discipline — he gets into all sorts of trouble… He climbs over the railing while sailing a toy sailboat, falls into a pool, and has to be fished out. He then “slips away” from the adults “to see things by himself.” More trouble ensues in the form of various misadventures, as Johnny hits another boy in the face with a ball, falls off a swing he pushed too high, and finds himself on a runaway donkey, causing mayhem on the beach and knocking over an apple-seller (as Bruton’s double-page illustration vividly shows). Eventually, covered in bandages, Johnny winds up back home, where his father admonishes: “You see what comes to heedless boys, whene’er they disobey.”

JohnnyHeadstrong-center

Bruton’s double-page illustration of Johnny Headstrong on the pony causing mayhem

So McLoughlin’s Brothers’ rendition of this “summertime story” is really one of the “cautionary tales” inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter for which the firm was famous: stories showing kids “acting badly” and suffering the consequences. Some of their other classics in this vein have titles like: Little Suck-a-Thumb, Naughty Girls, Lazy Sam, Inky Jake, Foolish Fanny, Paulina Pry, and Moping Mary. After all, “to please and instruct” was the company motto, even during summer vacation!