8 Best Chinese Children's Books to Read for Chinese New Year
by Christine Yang
The 2021 Chinese New Year is fast approaching. It is the year of the ox, a symbol of diligence, persistence and honesty, and a year which is supposed to be especially lucky for finding friendship and love.
The 2021 Chinese New Year also marks a whole year of on-and-off school for many children as the world battles COVID-19. Many families like my own are coping with a stay-at-home winter that will be written into history.
If there is one positive result of COVID-19 in my family, I would say, it is that my 5 and 10-year-old sons are reading a lot of books. I thought I would share some great Chinese New Year-themed books so we can help other families create new memories this Chinese New Year with these heartwarming stories about love and connection.
Working with educators, parents and children, our JoJo team picked 8 great Chinese Children's books to read for the Chinese New Year. We hope you and your kids will love these beautiful and authentic Chinese books as much as we do.
These books are:
Beautifully illustrated engaging stories
Tested and loved by educators, parents and children
Filled with examples of Chinese family traditions--both old and modern
Good to know: Some vocabulary about Chinese New Year will be unfamiliar to most kids outside of China. Please don’t expect your children or students to know each single Chinese phrase in these books. Allow children to listen to the stories again and again while exploring the illustrations and they will be repeating new vocabulary from them before you know it!
Research suggests that children’s listening comprehension outpaces reading comprehension until the middle school years. It is especially important for young children to be read to as they gradually shift to independent reading. The age bucket is also subjective because each child is truly unique. What we believe is that if you make a lot of great books available to your children and they will find the books they truly love!
5 Best Chinese Picture Books for Chinese New Year, for children 3+
1. The Very Busy Chinese New Year Eve 好忙的除夕 (hǎo máng de chú xī)
The Chinese New Year Eve is such a busy day, me and my younger brother got up super early to play. Mom is cooking like a real chef. We promise to help and not to make mischief!
Grandma is busy making steamed cakes, granddad is busy dusting windows, and dad is busy shopping for New Year decorations. My brother and I are trying to help but still make all shorts of mistakes! We have so much fun but we do not worry, because granddad says no scolding or punishment is allowed today. Only praise and good wishes for the New Year day!
We knocked over candies and helped dad to choose a new house plant! We even got lost in the crowded nursery market!
Finally, after a big busy day we have the New Year's Eve banquet! Every one makes a new year wish as we dive into the feast.
Who would not love to play games and stay up past midnight to usher the New Year (守岁 shǒu suì)? We finally have to get ready for bed and get a moment to count the money in the red envelopes given to us as new year gifts. Mom says: You should put the red envelopes under the pillow. They will bring you peace and prosperity! After the New Year, you should give your mom your red envelopes, so that I can safeguard your money and return it to you when you are grownups!
As my little brother dozes to sleep, he asks: "Sister, sister, can you tell me? Will mom really give us the money when we want her to?"
Why we recommend:
If you only choose one book to read with your child about all the fun and craziness of a contemporary Chinese New Year, choose this XinYi Children's Literature Award winner 好忙的除夕 The Very Busy Chinese New Year Eve by budding Taiwan author 翁艺珊.
There are not many Chinese books that rhyme, and there are not many Chinese New Year books that truly speak from the perspective of a child, but 好忙的除夕 The Very Busy Chinese New Year Eve accomplished both masterfully. We love the incorporation of everyday language that rhymes! The Chinese text flows and sings to create a joyful read-aloud experience.
We love the authentic, lighthearted and rhyming narrative of the many traditions this contemporary family hold dear. 年夜饭 (nián yè fàn) Cooking the biggest feast of the year, 大扫除 (dà sǎo chú) the deepest house cleaning of the year, 贴春联 (tiē chūn lián) putting Spring Festival couplets around the door, 说好话 (shuō hǎo huà) saying everything auspicious and nothing non-auspicious for the whole day, 守岁 (shǒu suì) staying up past mid-night to usher in the New Year, receiving red envelopes with New Year money from grownups...
The stories are not only humorous but also authentic. I can't help but smiling when reading the book with my own children: "Exactly!", I think. When I was a kid growing up in China, my mom always had a way to take my red envelopes away and I don't think I have ever get them back! ... What good memories! My brother and I loved staying up past midnight on New Year's Eve. Every single light in our home would be switched on to usher in the New Year and scare off evil spirits. The air bubbled with the smell and deafening sound of fireworks. My brother and I eagerly counted and compared our red envelope money and plotted ways to spend it...One time, I got in trouble for dumping water out in the sink because no one was supposed to throw away anything (symbolizing money) until after midnight when the very auspicious New Year comes!
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…
Why we recommend:
We love that this monster story is told with comforting warmth. Many other authors have attempted this New Year monster folktale, 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 personally took 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 storytelling tend to be too abstract for small children to appreciate. It was not until the past few years that we started to fall in love with his newer works. 小年兽 ( Xiǎo Niǎn Shòu) is definitely a highlight for this highly celebrated author in contemporary China.
Audio Book:read byLukawith the presence of the print book.
Long, long ago in China, people had trouble remembering how old they were. The Jade Emperor in heaven threw a swimming race. In order to make it easier for people to remember the year of their birth, the top 12 finishers would be picked to name 12 years!
(Fun fact…even today, 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!)
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 so that he could finish first…
After a lot of other drama, 11 more animals made it--the Pig taking the 12th and final place. 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.
Why we recommend:
We have read and reviewed many books about the Chinese Zodiac over the years. After all, the Zodiac animals are at the center of Chinese folk culture. What topic can a child relate to better than animals? This is, however, the book that our own children ask to read again and again.
We love that the short story is filled with action. The illustrator Lai Ma is another celebrated contemporary Taiwanese author and illustrator.
On the last page of the book, children enjoy finding out the birth year and zodiac animal of each of their extended family members.
Here is a video of my son reading from our favorite page when he was 3 years old. Whenever we turned to this page, he stopped me and took over. He loved 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. My 3 year old son already sounded like a sophisticated Chinese speaker!
Author: 熊亮 Liang Xiong Originally published in: China Digital Book:Ellabook App Print Book: Amazon Audio Book: read by Luka with the presence of the print book.
My family has a big stove in the kitchen. Above the stove, there is a picture of the Kitchen god. The Kitchen god has big eyes! He is watching us！
The Kitchen god overlooks my whole family's daily chores and activities through out the year.
One time, I broke granddad's favorite vase, should I blame it to the little cat?
Oh... Look at the Kitchen god! He is staring at me with his huge eyes!
On December 23rd of the lunar calendar, the Kitchen god goes to Heaven to report to the Jade Emperor about our family's deeds, good or bad. Grandmother made some really sticky, sweet candies and offered them to the Kitchen God. When the Jade Emperor asks him about our family, the Kitchen god's mouse is filled with candies and his teeth are stuck together with sticky sweetness, so all he could mutter out is: "Good! Good!"
The Kitchen god returns to our family right before New Year's eve and announces whether we are getting rewards or punishment from the Jade Emperor. I missed him and can't wait to welcome him back, because I know that the Kitchen god forgives me for my mischief. He is my family's guardian as he watches over us with love and trust.
Why we recommend:
灶王爷 The Kitchen God is another one of our favorite books from celebrated Chinese author 熊亮. The Kitchen god folktale may not be familiar to even many children in China nowadays. The Kitchen god may be found only in rural China where people still use the old-style stone fire stoves, usually burning coal or firewood for cooking. In those kitchens, you would likely see a picture of the Kitchen god over the stove.
In this book, the story is told through a little girl's narrative in everyday language. The Kitchen god is always watching over her and her grandparents. How odd! But wait... People make sticky candies, hoping to stuff the Kitchen god's mouth when he has his annual report with Jade Emperor before the New Year. In the end, it is love and respect that triumph over good behavior!
The story is short and warm, a lovely addition to your Chinese book collection. Children will learn about this unique Chinese tradition that used to be more prevalent but still happens in certain regions in China in December of the lunar calendar.
Author:熊亮 Liang Xiong Originally published in: China Digital Book: Ellabook App Print Book: Amazon Audio Book: read by Luka with the presence of the print book.
I am a Little Stone Lion, the only guardian of the town. I am older than everyone in the town, although I am smaller than a cat.
Everyone in the town loves me the Little Stone Lion, and they serve me food during Chinese New Year.
I watch over everyone, keep everyone company and remember everything that has happened in this little town.
Children leave the town when they grow up, but I will be here, always.
Why we recommend:
Another delightful book written and illustrated by celebrated Chinese author 熊亮, the 小石狮 Little Stone Lion is a tender eulogy for the iconic stone lions that were once commonly seen in front of households as a symbol of safety and guardianship. With massive modernization and construction sweeping China in recent decades, traditional communities and houses, as well as those stone lion statues that once guarded them, have been disappearing, however they will long live in the memories of generations of Chinese.
Kids will warm up to the friendly Little Stone Lion and be delighted by the beautiful, authentic Chinese ink-style illustration. The sentences in the book are short and simple, suitable for younger kids and beginning readers.
Audio Book: read by Luka with the presence of a print book.
Little Maomao's father works in a faraway place 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 汤圆 (tāng yuán, sweet sticky rice ball made for the New Year) for Maomao to find. Which she does! But what happens to the precious lukcy coin Maomao got?
All too soon it is time for Papa to go away again.
Why we recommend:
This poignant, vibrantly illustrated tale won the prestigious Feng Zikai Chinese Children's Picture Book Award for 2009, and the New York Times 2011 Best Illustrated Children's Books for 2011. 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 stay 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 children and students about China and those children! When my own son was 8, he was so curious about the hardship and bigger story behind Maomao, while my 3-year-old enjoyed the vivid pictures and the friendly story-line as well.
I especially love the simple holiday pleasures the family shares in this book: going out to greet friends, cleaning and repairing things around the house, getting haircut, and hiding a coin in the 汤圆 (tāng yuán). As kids, my brother and I would race to eat as many 汤圆 (tāng yuán) as we could for a chance to find the lucky coin. The story stirs great memories for me to share with my sons.
The book also creates rare and precious moments for a child to discover the subtle sadness, sacrifice and love woven into the story: Maomao’s mom put on the new coat that dad bought her, but there were big patches on dad’s own old sweater; dad’s big promise is 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 "traditional" Chinese father saying “I love you” to their child, 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 come 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 as a delicacy. He would also 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 in southwest China surrounded by big mountains. 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.
Audio Book: read byLukawith the presence of a print book.
After the 1st day of Chinese New Year, villagers start to visit friends & family. On the 3rd day, children start to receive lanterns from their uncles.
On the 5th day, Zhao Di ’s uncle finally brings her 2 lanterns.
She immediately lights the candle inside one lantern and goes out to play. All her friends are out playing with lanterns of all shapes: lotus flower, fire ball, even ox poop-shaped lanterns!
When Zhao Di ’s candle is blown out by a gust of wind, all her friends make a wall of bodies to block the wind and let her relight it. A group of boys runs around with lanterns making mischief. Every evening Zhao Di plays outside with her friends and their lanterns until all the candles burn out. On the 15th day of the New Year, the last day of the New Year Lantern play, Zhao Di is sad. After she has a blast at the lantern party that ends with everyone playing a lantern-bumping battle and ultimately burning their paper lanterns, she cheers up: Lantern play will come back Next Chinese New Year!
Why we recommend:
This beautiful book is illustrated by artist 朱成梁 who also illustrated The New Year's Reunion book. The illustration is full of Chinese elements and the story is flowing with the warmth of Chinese New Year, introducing children to the 打灯笼 (paper lantern play) tradition in Northern China.
In Shanxi province in Northwest China, uncles gift their nephews and nieces paper lanterns on the Chinese New Year. Children go out to play with lanterns every night until the 15th of the New Year, the Lantern festival-- that finale with everyone playing a lantern bumping battle until their paper lanterns burn. Playing and burning the lanterns are thought to bring the family and the uncles good luck and health in the coming New Year.
A few Chinese idioms and figurative expressions are used along with the smooth, everyday narrative, providing an opportunity for parents and teachers to discuss using descriptive phrases in storytelling.
6. The Spring Festival in Beijing 北京的春节 (běi jīng dí chūn jié)
Audio Book: read by Luka with the presence of a print book.
In the old time in Beijing, the Chinese New Year started in early December in the Luna calendar. On 腊八 (là bā) December 8th on the Lunar Calendar, every household made the 腊八 (là bā) porridge with every kind of nut and dry fruit. It was not a merely porridge. It was a mini farm harvest exhibit! A special garlic saucece was also made for the dumplings that every family would be enjoying in the Chinese New Year...
Children loved to roam the holiday market... and enjoy the many other activities filled with the exciting smells, sounds and colors of the Chinese New Year!
Why we recommend:
The author of this book, Lao She, a novelist and dramatist, was one of the most significant 20th-century Chinese literature figures. His work usually vividly uses Beijing dialect and portraits communities, people and traditions in Beijing, the capital city of China.
北京的春节 The Spring Festival in Beijingdescribes how people celebrated the Spring Festival in Beijing in the mid-20th century. The Spring Festival starts at the beginning of December of the Lunar calendar and ends on January 19th of the Lunar calendar. People were super busy during the two months, preparing and enjoying the biggest festival of the year.
Although the book is about New Year in the past, it doesn't register as being "outdated". The detailed, beautiful illustrations, as well as the smooth, skilled narrative bring back to life a wonderful time filled with delightful and interesting New Year activities in Beijing. Reading the book will make children feel like walking through an exquisite museum exhibit of Beijing.
The text of this book may be advanced for young Chinese learners. It is selected as a Chinese literature textbook for Grade 6 students in China. Even if your students or children's Chinese proficiency level may not allow them to read the book independently, we highly recommend introducing to them the E-book version of the book. We recommend "reading" the pictures of the book, while listening to someone to read the text aloud. Interactive e-books such as the Ellabook Digital Library App even animate the illustrations, and add music and sound effects to the book, making listening to the e-book an entirely different multimedia experience.
Children will enjoy the fascinating and detailed illustrations, discover traditional objects that Chinese people used during the new year, and walk through the streets and communities that made up a very festive New Year in Beijing.
Just a few years ago, searching for good 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 our delight, a new generation of beautifully written and illustrated New Year books, print and digital, 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 )
We are delighted to have selected those 8 great books for your family or class to enjoy for the Chinese New Year.
What’s on your Chinese New Year book list?Please leave us a comment and let us know!