Friday, July 20, 2007

The Laziest Boy in the World

Namioka, Lensey. Illus. by YongSheng Xuan (1998). The Laziest Boy in the World. New York: Holiday House . ISBN 0823413306.

When a baby boy, Xiaolong, was born who was so lazy he didn’t even bother to kick or cry, his parents thought he just wasn’t strong enough. His sisters—who don’t count because they are girls—let him watch as they fly their kites or play tug of war. Xiaolong is content to watch because it would take too much effort to participate—though he imagines what he would do if he did have enough energy to play. Xiaolong doesn’t learn to dress himself until he’s ten years old (and even then, he’s too lazy to make sure his clothes are properly fastened) and he fails at his only job because he’s too lazy to pull hard enough on the ox’s reigns to keep it from going into the mud. He even stays home, with a ring of bread around his neck while his mother runs errands—so he won’t starve to death while she’s not there.

One night, while everyone is sleeping—except for Xiaolong who was too lazy even to get up to go to bed—a thief climbs in through the window and starts to rob Xiaolong’s family. He is grasped by an unfamiliar feeling—anger—and the impulse to actually do something. So, he purposefully spills a pot of slimy rice soup all over the floor so that when the thief comes back by, he slips and falls, waking the entire house.

When word spread that lazy Xiaolong had saved his family from robbery, they were surprised and praised him. Xiaolong was very pleased, but not from the praise—just that little bit of movement of stopping the thief had triggered unfamiliar but happy sensations in Xiaolong’s muscles. He began walking, slowly, and moving more until finally, he learned to fly kites along with his sisters and realized that participating is ten times better than watching.

What an adorable way to say, “Get up off your butt and stop watching the world pass you by,” as well as, “Watching the world go by may be entertaining, but getting up and going is so much more fulfilling.” I was puzzled by the complacency and nonchalance of Xiaolong’s parents. I’m not sure if this is a cultural thing or a folk tale thing. Is it Chinese to let your children do as they please and merely hope they’ll grow out of their behavior? Or is it just something we as readers of a folk tale must suspend our disbelief of for the purposes of the story? That element of the story was very frustrating to me.

Textually, this was another book with few cultural cues. The story mentions that Xioalong is from China, that he was “the only son, the precious one who would carry on the family name,” that “all the other children in the family were girls, who weren’t supposed to count,” eating with chopsticks, tending to a rice paddy and rice soup—these are the cues that reveal the setting of the story and that it is an Asian one.

But it is the illustrations, with their mixed media of acrylic, watercolor, pen and colored pencil, which really drive the cultural setting home. The dress, the houses, the furniture made of bamboo, the shrine in the home with the incense are all details which allude to the cultural origins of the story. However, I ask the question again, do I recognize these as Chinese because I have been to a Chinese restaurants and have seen similar artifacts? Are these articles accurate portrayals of a Chinese family’s typical belongings, dress and manners? The artist is Chinese, but do I use that as a reason to rationalize the impulse to assume accuracy? We have already learned this semester that such an assumption about other artists can be erroneous (African-American vs. continental African, Mexican vs. Puerto Rican (or other Hispanic groups, different tribes of Native Americans) and misleading. The question remains, how does an “outsider” judge the cultural accuracy of images and texts without first-had experience or insight from an insider? Should we merely trust the producers of these books? In my opinion, the fact that we have learned to question everything—to look at these books with a critical eye—is a step in the right direction (and a way to open dialogue amongst our young readers—a legacy we owe them) but is it enough? If not, what is the solution?

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Sloth does not a chipper tale make, at least not in this sluggishly paced story. As a baby, Xiaolong doesn't cry or kick much, "because it was too much work." In boyhood, washing his face proves so taxing that he cleans the left side one day and the right side the next ("There was usually a dirty stripe down the center of his face"). But while Namioka (The Loyal Cat) finds opportunity for amusing anecdotes in Xiaolong's lethargy, there is something inescapably sad and pathetic about him. Too long in arriving, the tale's turning point occurs after a thief creeps into the house one night and rouses Xiaolong to anger?and action. Xuan (Ten Suns: A Chinese Legend), using a combination of acrylics, watercolor, pen and colored pencil, gives Xiaolong's face a range of unorthodox expressions, but the task of rendering an almost inert hero seems to daunt him, too. Xiaolong ends up looking like someone who's mentally challenged as well as physically slow?in other words, like someone parents won't want their children to laugh at. Ages 4-8

School Library Journal:
Kindergarten-Grade 3-In a rural village in old China, Xiaolong is born lazy. Since he is the youngest child and the only boy, his family indulges him to the point that he grows up barely able to take care of himself. Specific incidents dramatize just how lazy he is. When he is hungry, he won't turn over to reach for bread; when he falls off a water buffalo, he lies in the mud for hours looking at the sky. However, when he sees a thief enter his house one night, he pictures his family's grief at their imminent loss and cunningly foils the intruder. This unaccustomed action makes him a hero and changes his idle ways. The deliciously subtle humor of the text is not matched by the heavy-handed illustrations. While Xuan's dreamlike paintings, reminiscent of Marc Chagall's work, are authentic in detail, his portrayal of massive figures and a hero who is lazy of eye as well as of limb teeter just this side of grotesque, more caricature than character. Still, the well-written story should be fun to read aloud, and is sure to make the most indolent child feel superior.

In China long ago, there lived a very lazy boy named Xiaolong. When Xiaolong was a baby, he was too lazy to kick or cry much, and things haven't changed as he has grown older: he is so lazy that he washes the left side of his face one day and the right side the next. It takes a dramatic crisis--a thief breaking into his home--to provoke Xiaolong into taking a satisfying and messy action that changes his future. Fiction that reads like folklore, this is both fun to read and visually appealing, showing a setting quite different from the typical U.S. town but characters much like folks at home today. Xuan, who also illustrated Ten Suns: A Chinese Legend (1998) by Eric Kimmel, uses detail in dress and household artifacts to add both humor and an authentic sense of Chinese culture. The book is a good choice for reading aloud or storytelling. Unfortunately, there is no help with name pronunciation and no guide to cultural details.

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