In years past, I’ve scoured websites and bookshelves for every Chinese New Year/Spring Festival themed kids’ book around to read to our clan in anticipation of the holiday. We found some good ones and some not so good ones. Overthinker that I am, I hope my musings help you decide which ones are worthwhile for your clan.
No Year of the Cat from Sleeping Bear Press is a familiar folk story about the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac and why there is no cat among them. It all starts with the emperor needing a way to remember time, when things happened, most notably the year the prince was born. His idea to name the years after animals results in a race with the winning animals making it into the ranks of becoming legacies in the calendar. Cute story and really beautiful illustrations.
Chelsea’s Chinese New Year explains Chinese New Year for the younger set. I love the size of it–a nice big paperback book (about a 9 1/2″ square) with big ole illustrations very similar in style to the Disney Channel’s Charlie and Lola. The main character, little Chelsea, explains how her Chinese American family celebrate Chinese New Year, touching on all the traditions either in the text or illustrations. Each page has a little section that gives additional information about the holiday that you can choose to read or skip over to just keep it a story. This one would be great to use in a classroom to read aloud to a group of preschoolers or kindergarteners.
Marcia Vaughan’s The Dancing Dragon has simplistic text about how Chinese New Year is celebrated in Chinatown. But, what makes this book worthwhile is that the pages all unfold accordion style to reveal the illustration of a long dragon from the parade. Good one to read to a classroom of kids since you could have a child hold each page as it unfolds. Just wish the book was a little larger in size. At 9″x7.5″, a couple more inches would make it much better.
Another preschool friendly one, Joan Holub’s Dragon Dance: A Chinese New Year Lift-the-Flap Book is a popular one. Each page has 4 lines of simple text in a classic ABCB rhyming pattern (hope that’s right…trying to remember 7th grade English class) with good sized flaps to open to reveal some part of the New Year celebration, supposedly one in New York City’s Chinatown (though it wouldn’t have to be). Colorful and bold illustrations include little “extras” you can point out–the significance of the flowers, the oranges, and the super long noodles. Only complaint? The last flap ends with “Gung Hat Fat Choy!” in big ole print which is Cantonese rather than the Mandarin “Xin Nian Kuai Le!” New Year’s greeting – something that really bothered my Mandaring-learning kiddos.
Rivers-Moore and Davis’ Chinese New Year! Create and Celebrate is new this year since it just came out this past fall. I just ordered it myself and am hoping that it gives my daughter some fun activities to engage with Spring Festival traditions while giving me some less spectacular ideas than the ones I can find on Pinterest. Yup. Easy works.
It’s not easy to make a new story out of a classic one. In Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas, the author did that out of…can you guess the classic story? The story takes place during Spring Festival, and Little Goldy’s mother sends her to wish their panda neighbors a happy new year and deliver a plate of traditional turnip cakes. What follows is a familiar set of events with a silly twists that will make your little ones giggle. It’s a fun book and one that can teach about CNY in an entertaining way as well as open up conversation about friendship and mercy. A recipe for turnip cakes is included at the end that I haven’t been brave enough to try to make yet, but it’s on my to-do list!
Despite mediocre illustrations, Bella and the Year of the Dragon is the best book I could find explaining the fable behind all the animals of the Chinese zodiac and their race to the emperor to determine what order they would come in for the years of the Chinese lunar calendar. And, believe me, I read a bunch that were not even worthy of a review. This one, however, does a good job explaining the fable simply but in an interesting way.
This one was published in October 2011 and has won the Feng ZiKai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award. A New Year’s Reunion was written by Yu Li-Qiong who was born in Anqing, China and currently lives in Nanjing. It tells the fictional story of a family united only once a year when the father, one of China’s 100 million migrant workers, returns home for a few days to see his wife and daughter and celebrate the lunar new year. It’s illustrated beautifully and is a cute story of a family’s traditions, ending poignantly with the father saying goodbye to go back to work. I’m declaring this one a must-have book–not only does it describe well how a Chinese family celebrates the new year, it also shares how so many people in China live as migrant workers. Count on this book opening the door for great conversations with your kids about life in China and, possibly, questions about birth families. Get ready.
Though I’m not a big fan of the illustrations in Ying Chang Compestine’s The Runaway Rice Cake, I appreciate the message. The Chang family makes one rice cake with the last bit of their rice flour for their whole family of 5 to eat for Chinese New Year. In gingerbread man fashion, the rice cake comes alive and runs away, showing you elements of the New Year celebration as they chase it. When the rice cake runs into a poor and hungry elderly woman, “the rice cake stopped trying to escape” and surrenders itself to be eaten. The children are sad that their last food is gone, but they return home to an abundance, much more than they could have imagined, to their happiest New Year’s Eve ever. Some kids might find the anthropomorphized rice cake’s surrender to be eaten a bit sad (or disturbing?), but the overall message of giving generously and receiving blessings, sometimes tangible ones right away and sometimes ones we may not recognize so easily, makes this book a worthwhile family read.
Ying Chang Compestine wrote another runaway book – The Runaway Wok: A Chinese New Year Tale. These illustrations are way more my style–bright, funky, fun, filling the pages with color. The story is a silly fable that is sort of a mix of Jack and the Beanstalk, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the Gingerbread Man, Chinese style. My kids thought it was hilarious and were quickly repeating the catchy “skippity-hoppity-ho” line from the crazy wok. And, in addition to showing them pieces of how Chinese New Year is celebrated traditionally, it gave us the chance to talk about bigger things like sharing, justice, revenge, and mercy. This one has been read in and out of season.
Start your own New Year tradition with this series by Oliver Chin. So far, in his Tales from the Chinese Zodiac, he’s written a story book for the Dog, Ox, Pig, Rabbit, Rat, Tiger, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, and now Monkey. All are cute little stories that capture the symbolic spirit of the zodiac animal featured. Though I haven’t read the new book for this year yet, they typically integrate some of the traditional characteristics believed for those born in that particular year with a fun story. Also, we love the iPad app for the year of the dragon and are hoping Immedium creates some new ones for the other years too since even our iPad likes to celebrate CNY.
Janet Wong’s year 2000 This Next New Year is unique in that it shows different ethnic groups in America celebrating Chinese New Year. The little boy who is the main character is half Chinese and half Korean. The book also mentions a little boy who is French and German who celebrates the holiday with Thai food to go and a little girl who is Hopi and Mexican who calls the New Year her favorite holiday because she likes getting red envelopes from her neighbor from Singapore. With vibrant colors, the boy explains with a bit of wit and humor and spunk their traditions around the New Year including washing his hair and “drying it extra dry.” A cute book for the younger set – maybe 4-7 year olds – and particularly good for pointing out that lots of different people enjoy recognizing Chinese New Year with their own little traditions. (Note: there is a Chinese/English bilingual version too for budding learners or those who simply want to follow along in characters.)
Karen Chinn’s book Sam and the Lucky Money is one that engages children in Chinese New Year traditions while teaching a lesson of contentment and generosity. Sam is excited to get his red envelopes from his grandparents for Chinese New Year filled with $4. But, when he goes to Chinatown to buy himself something special, he’s frustrated that everything he wants is more than what he was given. When he sees an elderly homeless man without shoes on his feet, he gives all his money to him. I’m more of a bright, funky illustration type of person, so the soft watercolors didn’t wow me like they might for some. But, the message is one that does wow me. And, it gives you the opportunity to talk to your child about what it means “to be lucky” and if there even is such a thing.
Grab a used copy of Red Eggs & Dragon Boats: Celebrating Chinese Festivals by Carol Stepanchuk while you can find a copy still. It’s a great kids’ reference book for Chinese New Year, the grave sweeping holiday (Clear Brightness), red egg and ginger celebrations, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Moon Festival. Loads of information about those holidays, fables, and other traditions are in here and explained in a way that a grade schooler can understand. The color illustrations are really pretty–made me wish they were fabrics in them for a cute little skirt for my little one.
Want a book for an older girl? You might want to check out The Chinese New Year Mystery. In classic Nancy Drew style, the school is getting ready for the Chinese New Year parade when the dragon is stolen. Nancy Drew (you can’t just call her Nancy) has to figure out who stole the dragon so that the parade can go on. Traditions of the Chinese New Year are described as one of Nancy’s friends, Mari Cheng, is Chinese American. There’s a little bit of interesting drama too as a few girls mouth off about Chinese New Year being “stupid.” Hmmm…could lead to some interesting conversations.
Another one I really like is Cheng Hou-tien’s The Chinese New Year. We got it from the library since it’s an old book and hard to find. The book explains Chinese New Year traditions with the only illustrations being black colored paper cuttings on a white background which is so beautiful actually. May not wow your little ones as much since it isn’t bright and eye catching, but the art of scissor cutting in China just fascinates me.
If that’s not enough for you, here are a few other titles that were recommended to me but that I haven’t checked out yet:
- Celebrating Chinese New Year: An Activity Book,
- A to Z Mysteries Super Edition #5: The New Year Dragon Dilemma,
- Lucky New Year! Board book,
- Great Race,
- Celebrating the Chinese New Year,
- The Paper Dragon, and
- Long-Long’s New Year: A Story About the Chinese Spring Festival.
Any more titles that you’d suggest? Comment and share so we can all check them out.