“Many moons ago,” the story begins, “the people of China had no calendar.” So the Jade Emperor set out to rectify that. He created a calendar based on animals, giving each year a different animal. But he wasn’t sure which order the animals should come in, so he held a race for the animals to cross a wide river. As the legend of the Chinese zodiac unfolds in the pages of The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Dawn Casey (author) and Anne Wilson (illustrator), we learn how each year became a different animal.
Every creature in the animal kingdom was invited to compete in the race. My children loved the swirling colors and playful story of the animal’s personalities, like the sneaky rat. Rat and cat were lamenting their fate at never being able to win the race. So rat “sidles up to Ox. ‘How fine and strong you are, Ox…I’m sure you could easily carry one, or even two, small animals across the river.’” The dependable ox agrees to carry rat and cat. But as the finish line approaches, rat pushes his best friend cat into the water and darts ahead of ox to win the race. The year of the rat is therefore the first on the calendar. Cat never made it to shore, which is why there is no year of the cat and why rat and cat are enemies to this day. People born in the year of the rat are said to be shrewd and industrious but also manipulative and scheming, which rat illustrates perfectly in the story.
I loved that this book is based on one of the legends of the Chinese zodiac’s creation, depicting the story with movement and color. Each page builds excitement over who will win the race and how. Wouldn’t everyone have expected the fierce and strong dragon to win? The last few pages of the book give a brief overview of three important Chinese festivals (the New Year and Dragon Boat and Moon festivals), followed by a list of all the animal years, starting in 1936, and characteristics associated with each animal.