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