Book Review: 《十二生肖的故事》 Story of the 12 Chinese Zodiac

Long ago, this folktale retelling begins, people had trouble remembering when they were born and how old they were. To help people remember their birth years, the Jade Emperor hit upon the idea to assign twelve animals to each year through a river-crossing race.

Written and illustrated by Taiwanese author and illustrator Lai Ma, this warm and funny retelling recounts the story of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac in simple but lively language well-suited to the playful illustrations.

The heart of most retellings of this folktale lies in the conflict between the cat and the rat, where the rat's betrayal led to the enmity between both animals that still exists today. 《十二生肖的故事》gives the relationship between cat and rat (and ox, in this case) due consideration, but it also delves into the reasoning behind animal characteristics and behaviours to explain the order in which the animals arrive at the finish line, which is the order of the Chinese Zodiac today.

It explains why the snake doesn't have legs, and why the cow's eyes are so big. It explains why the dragon didn't reach the finish line first and why the rooster has only two legs. It even explains why the monkey has a red backside. For children today, and even for their parents, these funny asides will fix the story in their memory.

The book opens by detailing the steps that the Jade Emperor takes to come up with the idea of the race. Through a series of sequential panels, a little white-bearded man, absent of celestial regalia, takes a shower and hatches up the plan to hold a river-crossing race before he personally takes a ladder and brush to plaster up the notice for the race (which serves double duty as the title page for the book itself).

This funny and relatable action takes up a two page spread, but beyond that it sets the tone for the book itself, which is littered with similarly down to earth and funny behaviours from the race participants that are sure to tickle young readers. Not only are the situations funny, but the illustrations contain a wealth of story that the words don't elaborate upon, leaving all explanation to the imagination.

For example, the illustration where all creatures learn about the race is unaccompanied by any reading text. As busy as any Where's Wally? page, the spread will have eagle-eyed readers combing through the crowd to find the twelve zodiac animals. Similarly, the spread immediately thereafter features various animal groups sitting at tables to discuss the race over a meal. While the main thrust of the story is chiefly concerned with the relationship between the cat and the rat, it's not difficult to imagine the goat, monkey, and rooster (who row across the river together on a log of wood) agreeing to join hands and work together.

The illustrations also detail the fate of animals aside from the cat who didn't make it into the final twelve. In the margins of the river-crossing pictures, the fox gets pinched by a river crab, the crane doesn't wake up in time, the squirrel is distracted by acorns, and many more.

《十二生肖的故事》makes for a wonderful read during Lunar New Year for the entire family, extending the family fun and even teaching some cultural elements to kids. Recommended!

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