The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac
written by Dawn Casey, illustrated by Anne Wilson
(Barefoot Books, 2006)
‘Ready… Steady… GO!’ — this is an exuberant retelling of one of the legends of how the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac came to be and in the order we know them: the animal race ordered by the Jade Emperor, the King of Heaven. All the key elements are there, including how the cat and the rat were the best of friends until Rat pushed Cat into the water and hopped ashore to win the race, explaining why cats and rats hate each other to this day.
The story is told skilfully. The importance of being able to measure time is posited immediately and in a way that is relevant to children, who so often want to know with great precision exactly how long it is till their next birthday: ‘with no way to measure time, nobody could tell one year from the next.’ Yikes, how to solve this problem? Read on! Despite its simplicity, each animal’s character is woven into the story and the excitement of the race is conveyed by having to turn the page at places where the reader can gleefully anticipate what is going to happen. There is a nice touch too, with the rabbit gazing at the moon, an allusion to other myths from various cultures. This is is also alluded to in the section about the Moon Festival at the back of the book, where the Chinese Calendar, Important Days and the Characters attributed to each animal in the zodiac are explained in language accessible to young children. My five-year-old was particularly taken with working out which animal gets on with which and who that meant in our family.
The text is laid over Anne Wilson’s gloriously-coloured illustrations, which are certain to raise a chuckle. Ornate lollipop trees abound and splashy bubbles over broad brushstrokes convey the fast-moving water. Each animal moves through the pages as an animal should – the blue dog wags his tail, the pot-bellied pig has a wallow in the mud, the sinewy dragon twists its way through the sky: all except the rat, who anthropomorphically stands on his back legs and crosses his ‘arms’ or puts his ‘hands’ on his hips. All the animals (except the cat) are happy and smiling at the end and no one (except the cat) seems to mind that Rat won the race – after all, they have all gained a place in the Emperor’s new calendar and can now enjoy the party. Children who do not know Chinese will also enjoy working out the Chinese number characters from one to twelve, which appear on the cover and dotted around the end papers.
This lively retelling of the well-known Chinese legend, with its eye-catching illustrations, is a great read-aloud.