Twelve in a Race is a charming retelling of the story behind the 12 animals that form the Chinese zodiac. The basic premise, across multiple variations, is that the Jade Emperor – or Buddha, in some stories – holds a race, and the first 12 animals to cross the finish line win a spot on the zodiac.
The brisk, breathless pace of Catherine Little’s rhymes celebrates each animal’s strengths while softening some of the sharper edges. For example, Rat and Snake win their spots by taking advantage of Ox and Horse, but rather than passing judgment herself, Little asks the reader to reflect, “was that wrong?” About Pig, who comes in 12th, Little writes, “A nap hurt his race but was good for his health.” Pig’s performance is sometimes judged as laziness, so Little’s take is refreshing.
Sae Kimura’s illustrations are simply joyful. Each animal finishes the race on a full-colour, two-page spread that bursts with energy. You can almost feel how Rabbit is “[blown] forward by strong winds that came from behind.” Dragon in the background, clearly providing the “strong winds,” is a lovely detail. And the ecstatic grin on Tiger’s face reflects how they “[cross] the river amid loud cheers.”
The final spread, announcing “[a] year for each winner, noble traits to bestow” is a delightfully triumphant finale, with the animals in a row, all sporting gold medals. Snake’s self-satisfied grin, Dragon’s regal posture, Ox’s shy gaze, and Monkey’s mischievous smile speak to their personalities. The concluding line, “Is this how you thought it would unfold?” invites lively discussion.
This book is great for reading out loud; even readers familiar with the story will get caught up in the excitement of the race. It’s also useful for those who want to teach children about Chinese culture, as each animal’s name in Hanzi is included as is a brief explanation of the zodiac’s cultural significance. An illustrated wheel with years corresponding to each animal will help readers find their own place within the zodiac.