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Chinese New Year Books for Kids

I recently visited the Kindergarten and preschool classrooms for my two girls in order to share Chinese New Year with their classes. I went through a lot of books in order to find the best ones to read to their classes.

My pick for Three Year Olds:

Chelsea’s Chinese New Year by Lisa Bullard, 2012
This is how the book starts out:

Hi, I’m Chelsea! My family is getting ready for a big holiday. It’s called Chinese New Year.
Dad says it is China’s most important holiday. Some people celebrate it in the United States too. Like me!

This book has cute pictures and is a good introduction to Chinese New Year. Chelsea is a Chinese American girl and describes several of the traditions that her family does such as “cleaning last year’s bad luck out of our house” and “we have a big feast.” The text is pretty simple with 2-3 sentences on each page. There are several pages with additional explanations in a separate purple box. For my daughter’s three year old preschool class, I skipped most of these purple boxes when I read the book to the class.

Other traditions that the book talks about include new clothes, red, staying up late, getting together with family, honoring ancestors, making dumplings, leaving some fish as leftovers to symbolize abundance, firecrackers, a brief aside about the legend of Nian, red envelopes, celebrating for multiple days, and going to a Chinese New Year parade.

The kids enjoyed this book and the pictures are very vibrant and whimsical. The drawing style is similar to the Charlie and Lola books. This book is great for 2-6 year olds and probably older kids as well (my oldest is 6, so it’s hard for me to judge).

My pick for Kindergarten:

The Race for the Chinese Zodiac by Gabrielle Wang, 2013
If I had more time with the class, I would have read both this book and Chelsea’s Chinese New Year.

My favorite Chinese New Year activity is to have the kids act out the race for the Chinese zodiac. This is too hard for three year olds, but older four year olds can handle it – although many four year olds are afraid to be the Rat in the story. For the Kindergarteners, they clamored to play the part of the Rat! I have little placards for them to wear to show which animal they are playing and then I act as the emperor and narrator to guide them through the story. The kids love it and there are 13 animals, so we have the class do it twice to give everyone a chance. If there are not enough kids, children can play multiple parts.

Now the challenge was to find the best book to describe the race. Last year, I used a book that was written in Chinese to tell the story. My problem is that I cannot read Chinese. My husband loosely translated the story for me, but for this year, I wanted to read the story directly. I feel if you read the original text, the kids are exposed to a greater vocabulary.

The Race for the Chinese Zodiac by Gabrielle Wang was the winner for me. The story is well-written and the pictures are beautiful and engaging. Some books only emphasize the story of the Cat, Rat, and Ox and the other animals are just tacked on. I wanted the kids to understand the importance of all the animals in the Chinese Zodiac and how the unique qualities of each animal determined the order in which they crossed the finish line. This book does that well with descriptions of “kind Ox” allowing Cat and Rat to ride on him and “powerful Dragon” coming in fifth because he stopped to make rain for people that were having a drought.

This version of the story does have some differences from the usual version of the story, but the main things are the same. Many of the changes make it easier to understand for a modern audience. For example, in this story all of the animals start the race at the same time, but usually the reason the ox comes in second is because he is very hard-working and gets up early to start before all of the other animals. However, it is a little confusing why he would be allowed to start before everyone else. My guess is that the original legend had a race spanning several days, so it would be up to each animal to decide when to get up. The Race for the Chinese Zodiac does well at telling the story clearly and without too much extra explanation.

I also wish that the story went into a little more detail about why the rat asks the ox to carry him and cat on his back. When I read the story, I added something about the rat and cat being small and not good swimmers – what would they have to do to win the race? I was also reading this story to children that were mostly born in the year of the rat, and I didn’t want them to think that it was bad to be associated with the Rat. I wanted them to understand that all of the animals are good and were able to be part of the zodiac because of their positive attributes. I emphasized that Rats are clever and the Rat would likely have not even finished the race if he hadn’t done the things that he did. I also pointed out that they are clever like the Rat, but they can still decide for themselves what choices they make and how they treat their friends.

Overall, The Race for the Chinese Zodiac is an enticing book with poetic prose and beautiful pictures. The right parts of the story are emphasized and it is an exciting way to introduce the Chinese zodiac. This book is good for ages 4 – 9 years.

Other Books for Chinese New Year:

Holidays Around the World: Celebrate Chinese New Year: With Fireworks, Dragons, and Lanterns by Carolyn Otto, 2009. This is a National Geographic book with stunning photographs. This is a great book to share modern photos of how Chinese New Year is celebrated around the world. The text is a little dense, but has a lot of nice detail. It would be easy to shorten as needed for younger audiences.
Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan’s Chinese New Year by Kate Waters. This book is a little long for preschool kids. This is a good book for sharing photos of lion dancers and it is about a young boy preparing to do a lion dance in New York’s Chinatown. It also shows how Ernie’s family (Cantonese) celebrates Chinese New Year.
Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn, 1997. I have not had a chance to check out this book yet, but it seems to be worth a look. It is about a boy in Chinatown who has his lucky red envelope money to spend, but is disappointed that he can’t buy as much as he was hoping. In the end he gives it to a homeless man. It sounds a little contrived to me, but the Amazon reviews are positive.
The Story of the 12 Chinese Zodiac Signs (shi er sheng xiao de gu shi) by Lai Ma. This book is written in Traditional Chinese with Zhuyin. This is the book that I used the first year that I had the kids act out the race. This is a pretty good book, but it does have several strange things. The main problem is that it has a few tangents, but I just left them out when I told the story to the kids.
Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac by Ed Young, 1998. The story of this book is pretty good and the pictures are beautiful, but the pictures are much too dark and ominous for younger children.
The Great Race by Dawn Casey, 2008. I was disappointed by The Great Race. The pictures are a little too goofy and the story is only focused on the Cat, Rat, and Ox. My six year old complained that the drawings of the dog looked almost the same as the drawings of the rat.
The Great Race by David Bouchard, 1999. This book is for older kids with a lot of text on each page. The race takes place over several days and is the story is bleaker with more struggle and deprivation. The book starts out nicely with a grandmother explaining to her grandchild that the story is important because it explains how each animal ends up in its place in the zodiac. Unfortunately, the story is told in reverse with an explanation of how the pig ends up as the twelfth animal and the dog as the eleventh, and etc until it gets to the rat as the first to finish the race. This is very confusing for younger children. The cat is not part of this story.
Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin, 2010. I don’t really like this one. There is not enough explanation for why the traditions are important. If you read this one, you should add some of your own explanations. Maybe compare some of the traditions in the book to what people do at Christmas.
The Runaway Wok: A Chinese New Year Tale by Ying Chang Compestine, 2011. I like her books about the Kang brothers, but I didn’t like this book

And if you need some more ideas, here’s a link to Youth Literature Reviews’ list of Chinese New Year books.

Kindergarten Chinese New Year Presentation:

In case you are interested, this is how I ran my Chinese New Year presentation for my daughter’s Kindergarten class of 24 kids. I talked briefly about Chinese New Year and showed a couple of the lucky red door signs. I described CNY as a big celebration in China similar to Christmas in the US with family, food, and decorating. I also talked about how people celebrate CNY differently just as people celebrate Christmas differently. I read The Race for the Chinese Zodiac by Gabrielle Wang and had the kids act out the story two times so that everyone had a chance to play a part. Finally, I had them rotate through 5 activity centers around the room:

  1. Cutting out a horse shape and then decorating the horse with red and gold metallic paper
  2. Decorating white card stock fans with oil pastels and then doing a wash over them with water color
  3. Counting coins in red envelopes – each child had five red envelopes with a number (less than 30) written on it. They had to figure out which coins to put into the envelope to add up to the number. This was challenging for them, but the focus was on exposure and fun.
  4. Using chopsticks to transfer cotton balls from one bowl to another. We also had little plastic toys to transfer if the cotton balls were easy for them.
  5. Eating oranges and pomelo. Oranges represent wealth and pomelo represents abundance.

I had so much fun and the kids loved it!