Just a few years ago, searching for good Mandarin Chinese New Year stories was like wandering in the desert. Most Chinese New Year books were wordy and uninspired lists of New Year activities. In recent years, to my delight, a new generation of beautifully written and illustrated New Year books has emerged. Today China is producing world-class contemporary children’s literature on an unprecedented scale. (You can read more about this renaissance of Chinese children’s literature here )
In this post, I have highlighted three books for your child to enjoy this Chinese New Year.
These books are:
Beautifully illustrated and engaging stories
Tested and loved by our own children (They beg to read them again and again!)
Relatively easy to find in the United States without breaking the bank
Reviewed positively by parents and children in China
Suitable for readers with novice to advanced Mandarin proficiency
To the last point, please don’t expect your child to know each single Mandarin phrase in the books. Allow them to listen to the stories again and again and they will be reciting them before you know it! (see the video of Ming Ming at bottom of the Book #2 review!)
Book #1: 小年兽 ( Xiǎo Niǎn Shòu)
English title:The Little New Year Monster
Mandarin proficiency level: novice to advanced.
Language: Simplified Chinese
Written and illustrated by:熊亮 Xióng Liàng
Amazon Link: You can get a beautiful Kindle version for $1.99.
Long, long ago, there was a lonely monster. His name was “Nian (Year)”. He lived on the top of a big mountain. He had never played with any friends. On the coldest day of the year, Nian felt even more isolated.
He was very sad. He dashed down the mountain to scare those people who were alone.
People created all sorts of New Year traditions including fire crackers, red lanterns, and colorful posters to scare away the little New Year monster.
But Nian could always find the one child who was alone and sad during New Year…
In order to fend off Nian, the lonely kid had to call all his friends…and to be surrounded with all the New Year fun…
More about why I recommend:
I love that a monster story was told with comforting warmth. Many other authors have attempted this New Year monster story, but their monsters actually eat people! For some young kids, that can be a little too scary. Far from being scary, with a happy little twist in the end, 小年兽(xiǎo niǎn shòu) is all about happiness and friendship.
I took a notice of the author Xiong Liang years ago and bought many of his early books including 一园青菜成了精 (Yì Yuǎn Shū Cài Chéng Le Jīng, When the Vegetables Become Alive in the Garden) and 我的小马 (Wǒ De Xiǎo Mǎ, My Little Pony). Although I loved that his illustrations contain traditional Chinese elements, the artwork and stories tend to be too abstract for small children to appreciate. It was not until the past year or two that my boys and I started to fall in love with his new works. 小年兽 ( Xiǎo Niǎn Shòu) is definitely a highlight for this highly celebrated Chinese author in contemporary China.
Little Maomao's father works in faraway places and comes to his small hometown just once a year, for Chinese New Year.
At first Maomao barely recognizes him, but before long the family is happily making sticky rice balls, listening to firecrackers, and watching the dragon dance in the streets below.
Papa gets a haircut, makes repairs to the house, and hides a lucky coin in the dumplings for Maomao to find. Which she does!
But all too soon it is time for Papa to go away again.
More about why I recommend:
This poignant, vibrantly illustrated tale won the prestigious Feng Zikai Chinese Children's Picture Book Award in 2009, with rave reviews. At first, the story may not resonate with children whose parents are not far away, but it does give my children a glimpse of less fortunate families that are separated by time and space. We started reading this book when my eldest son was 5. He asked: why does Maomao’s dad stays home for only 3 days a year?
There are an estimated 60 million “left-behind” children at home, whose parents work in bigger cities as migrant workers (read this article about China’s Migrant Children Dilemma). What a great story to start a little research and discussion with your child about China and those less privileged children! Now that my son is 8, he has become so curious about the hardship and bigger story behind Maomao, while my 3-year-old enjoys the vivid pictures and the friendly story-line as well.
I especially love the simple holiday pleasures the family shared: going out to greet friends and hiding a coin in the Tang Yuan (dumplings). As kids, my brother and I would race to eat as many dumplings as we could for a chance to find the lucky coin, so this stirs great memories for me to share with my sons.
The book also creates rare and precious moments for my 8-year-old to discover the subtle sadness, sacrifice and love woven into the story: Maomao’s mom put on the new coat dad bought her, but there were big patches on dad’s own old sweater; dad’s big promise that “next time when I am back. I will bring you a doll!” “No!” Maomao said: "I don’t want a doll. I just want you to bring back the good luck coin.”
It is also a book about Father’s often subtle but abundant love. You would rarely hear a Chinese father saying “I love you” to their children, but he is not short of love. This touching story waters my eyes. It brought back the memory when my brother and I eagerly waited for my dad to came home from business trips. He would always bring home one or two plastic boxes, with little pieces of snacks neatly arranged inside some small dividers in the box. They were the snacks handed to him on the airplane. Riding an airplane was quite a luxury in the late 80's in China. My father never ate on the airplane. He brought every little crumb of his airline snacks home for his children. He also would bring us a hat, a book or little something we thought to be the most awesome thing in the world. Not much stuff was sold in our remote little town. Like Maomao’s dad, my father’s suitcase was also bringing home a bit of the outside world.
团圆 ( Tuán Yuán or A New Year's Reunion) is a modern take on a classic story, picturing a slice of Chinese society, family, culture and people. It is a book your family will cherish for years to come.
Long, long ago in China, people had trouble remembering how old they were. (In fact…Chinese people don’t usually directly ask about someone’s age. Instead, they say: what’s your zodiac animal? That’s how your age is figured out!) The Jade Emperor in heaven threw a swimming race.
The top 12 finishers would be picked to name 12 years, in order to make it easier for people to remember the year of their birth!
All the animals came when the race announcement was posted…
The cat, mouse and ox agreed to team up, but the mouse pushed the cat into the current as they were about to cross the finish line…
11 animals made it, before Pig took the 12th place.
The 12 Zodiac animals all made it, of course. But what happened to the cat? Why did the snake lose all his legs? Why does the monkey have a red bottom? The story explains it all.
More about why I recommend:
We have read many books about the Chinese Zodiac over the years. After all, the Zodiac animals are at the center of Chinese folk culture. What other topics can a child relate to better than animals? This is, however, the book that my boys ask to read again and again.
We love that the short story was filled with action. The illustrator Lai Ma is another celebrated contemporary illustrator.
We also have fun finding out the birth year and zodiac animal of each of our extended family members.
Here is a video of my 3-year-old reading from our favorite page. Whenever we turned to this page, he stops me and takes over. He loves to count the order of the winners and point out the animal characters: 鼠牛虎兔 (shǔ niú hǔ tù) ，龙蛇马羊 (lóng shé mǎ yáng) ，猴鸡狗猪 (hóu jī gǒu zhū) . Every Chinese person, old and young, can recite this order of the animals. Now my 3 year old son sounds like a sophisticated Chinese speaker!
Coming soon I will have another blog post about reinforcing language learning through different media and hands-on experiences.
What else would you like to read about?
What’s on your New Year movie watch list?Please leave us a comment and let us know how we can better help each other!
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