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Children’s Books Celebrating the Chinese New Year

RECOMMENDED READS

FOR THE YEAR OF THE RAT

 

 

 

The rat is the first animal on the Chinese zodiac and this year you’ll see all kinds of depictions of it as the two weeks of celebrations get underway this weekend. I’ve selected two books to share that are great for all ages. The first one is a board book for the youngest members of your family and the second is a fact and personal-account-filled middle grade picture book that will educate, enlighten and entertain every reader with its comprehensive approach to the Chinese New Year.

 

THE ANIMALS OF THE CHINESE NEW YEAR
Written by Jen Sookfong Lee
Translated by
Kileasa Che Wan Wong

(Orca Book Publishers; $9.95, Ages 1 and up)

This sweet 28 page board book, in both Chinese and English, features adorable photographs of children doing assorted things related to certain Chinese zodiac animal traits pictured on the opposite page. Readers learn that the 12 animals “are in a race to cross the river.” Rat, shown first, thinks about how to win. The picture is of a little boy peering into a pond. We then hear about Ox and Tiger and all the others, my favorite being the bunny. The precious photo of a mom and baby head to head, full on in conversation complements the actions of rabbit who in the race is described as chatting “to everyone along the way. The simple movements and children’s facial expressions and accompanying text for the dozen creatures help convey a bit about the Zodiac character’s personality. The Animals of the Chinese New Year provides a gentle introduction to the holiday celebrated around the world and includes a brief note from the author at the end.

Chinese_New_Year_book_coverCHINESE NEW YEAR: A Celebration for Everyone
Written by Jen Sookfong Lee
(Orca Book Publishers; $24.95, Ages 9-12)

This middle grade nonfiction book is part of the Orca Origins series that explores traditions around the globe and has its own dedicated website here: www.orcaorigins.com. This particular title on the Chinese New Year, also known as the Lunar New Year or the Spring Festival, aims to be “a snapshot of Chinese culture,” and succeeds beautifully.

The book, with gorgeous color photos throughout, is conveniently divided into four chapters: “What Chinese New Year is All About,” How Chinese New Year Spread Around the World,” How Chinese New Year is Celebrated Today,” and “Chinese New Year Celebrations Across the Globe.” In addition there’s an intro, a final word from the author, a glossary, and resources, making Chinese New Year a comprehensive and engaging go-to book for fans of the holiday as well as schools and libraries. Children can read the book in one sitting or take it one chapter at a time.

I was quickly hooked from the start after reading about Lee’s family’s story of moving to Vancouver. Her grandfather arrived as a teenager in 1913 and worked hard to establish a life for himself there. I also liked how Lee incorporated into each chapter several other individuals’ personal stories that focused on their connection to the Chinese New Year. By explaining the holiday, its meaning, popularity and traditions, the story of Chinese emigration and the diaspora in places like Canada, the United States and Australia was also revealed. Chinese New Year addresses racism, too, and how the goal of bringing the holiday out into the public was meant to welcome others into the celebration and help them see the Chinese culture with new, more tolerant eyes.

Lee includes CNY sidebars with interesting facts such as why numbers are important in the Chinese culture. For example eight is “the luckiest because when spoken in Chinese it can sound like the word for wealth.” I learned that the number four which can sound like word death is considered the most unlucky number. I now know the significance of the colors red and gold, red symbolizing fire and a color associated with the victory of fending off the mythical beast Nian. Gold symbolizes wealth and the enduring wish that one’s family should benefit from a year of prosperity. And did you know that twenty percent of the world’s population celebrates Chinese New Year? Or that in the United Kingdom 630,000 people of Chinese descent live, mostly in London?

There is something for everyone to get out of reading Chinese New Year whether that be learning where around the world Chinese New Year is celebrated and how, why people left China for a new start in hundreds of countries around the world and what they encountered in their new homeland, or the many different foods associated with the holiday. And with that I wish you Gung hay fat choy!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

 

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA
by Tahereh Mafi
(Harper Collins; $18.99, Ages 13+)

 

cover art from A Very Large Expanse of Sea

 

 

National Book Award Longlist
Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

 

 

In Tahereh Mafi’s riveting YA novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, Shirin, a 16-year-old Muslim girl living in post 9/11 America, has moved from town to town her whole life. She is constantly berated with judgmental stares and back hand comments from her peers at school no matter what school she attends. When she moves to yet another school, she finally feels able to channel her frustrations through breakdancing, a club her brother, Navid, formed.

Unlike Shirin, Navid tends to become popular in whatever school they go to. Shirin believes the reason she is an outcast is because of her decision to wear a hijab. The siblings bond over their love of break dancing as a way to express themselves. Shirin was impressed that Navid created the club as they had both talked about when they were younger. For Shirin, joining the club allowed her to have a support team during her period of debating whether or not to have a relationship with a boy named Ocean James.

Usually Shirin keeps her head down and never tries to make friends, that is until she meets her lab partner, Ocean.. Shirin does not want to look at people because she knows everyone is looking at her. She believes that if she looks back at them it is an invitation for them to ask her questions which will either be dumb or offensive. On top of that, because she is always moving, she feels that it is hard to form lasting relationships anyway. In the past, she claims she would have friends but would lose contact with them over time, and it was emotionally draining for her to make and lose friends. Ocean feels drawn to Shirin and hopes to start a romantic relationship with her. He finds her different and beautiful. But she is apprehensive that she will draw attention to him, especially because she’s Muslim. “But the harder I fell for him, the more I wanted to protect him.” Will Shirin ignore Ocean’s advances in order to protect him or will she give in to his pursuit?

Mafi perfectly conveys the emotions and complicated personality of Shirin through her writing. As a Muslim Iranian-American herself, she can identify with Shirin’s struggles and authenticate the experiences within the story. This novel deals with the harsh realities of discrimination and racism towards Muslims, heightened to scary proportions following 9/11 yet still present today. The relevance, detailed descriptions of events, and Shirin’s choices certainly enticed me to continue reading. It’s no surprise this gripping story won numerous accolades and I can easily add mine to the long list.

Click here for a reading guide.

  • Reviewed by Rachel Kaufman


Rachel Kaufman is a current sophomore studying communications at the University of Southern California. She’s passionate about books and hiking with her dog, Scout. Rachel enjoys how books reshape her imagination of the world around her. Rachel knows firsthand how important books are in aiding children’s futures, working with a reading program, Reach Out and Read, by reading, organizing, and donating over 200 children’s books. In her free time you can find her either reading or thinking about what she might read next.

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You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang

You Are (Not) Small
written by Anna Kang and illustrated by Christopher Weyant (Two Lions, $ 16.99, Ages 2-6).

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A plump, purplish bear-like creature is merrily blowing dandelion seeds across the opening page of this clever, humorous picture book. Enter one large, fuzzy orange-brown foot, stage right. “You are small,” says the new critter to the weed-clutching little one.

This innocent observation kicks off a spirited dialogue between the two. “I am not small. You are big,” purple critter retorts. But the larger one gestures to his pals, noting that he is one of many, all alike. Then more purple ones appear to back up their buddy as well.

Tempers flare, and the dialogue becomes an argument. (Sound familiar, parents?) There are pointed fingers, angry frowns, even insistent shouting. The size debate escalates until BOOM! A huge hairy paw crashes down, followed by diminutive pink critters with yellow parachutes. Fear not, the last line will guarantee laughs from every reader.

You Are (Not) Small is a short, simple book with text that could work as an easy reader, and illustrations that are engaging enough for the youngest picture book set. Readers of all ages will absorb the meta-message about keeping things in perspective and learning to appreciate differences without necessarily comparing them.

This is a great picture book for those who feel small or tall due to their relative ages or statures. It will spark fun conversations about the way we see ourselves and one another. The thickly-outlined, expressive animals are appealing in a Muppet-like fashion. They all share tiny round ears and large oval noses that make them appear to be related despite their differences in size. At just 91 words, this is a short and funny bedtime book choice with (not) a little kid appeal!

Click here for a very cool downloadable growth chart.

– Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey

      Where Obtained:  I received a review copy from the publisher and received no compensation.  The opinions expressed here are my own.

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Secrets of Love and Forgiveness

While there may be a lot of children’s books about bullying, Desmond and the Very Mean Word ($15.99, Candlewick, ages 6 and up) by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams with illustrations by A. G. Ford, stands out for several reasons.

First and foremost is that this story is based on a true account from the childhood of Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Second is the book’s overriding theme of forgiveness as a way to free one’s soul of hate, hurt and bitterness.  Readers learn that “getting back” at someone who causes the hurt only breeds a vicious cycle of more hostility.

DesmondCover-Jpeg

Not every child bullied will be able to embrace this philosophy. Not every parent will agree with this approach, but it certainly warrants consideration and may serve as a good starting point for a conversation on racism in the 21st century.

In apartheid era South Africa, young Desmond, a black youth, is pedaling his shiny new bike (the only one in his township) and is harassed by several white boys who call him something cruel and hurtful. Desmond, quite shaken by the experience, arrives at Father Trevor’s office. Once in this caring man’s presence, the boy forgets his main purpose for the visit – to show the man who played such an important role in Desmond’s life the thing that was bringing him newfound joy – the bicycle. Instead Desmond shares his pain with Father Trevor who asks the youngster if he can forgive the mean boys for using such a mean, hurtful word.  “No! Never!” replies an angry Desmond.

Readers learn at the book’s end that Father Trevor (Huddleston), in addition to being a mentor to so many, was also a prominent and influential voice in the anti-apartheid movement. His dreams of peace and equality in South Africa, where he rose to the position of Archbishop, were eventually realized, but not without years of struggle. There were thousands of Desmonds being hurt daily, and this one particular Desmond could not erase the very mean word from his mind. It seemed to rear its ugly head everywhere. When Father Trevor shares the secret of forgiveness as a powerful way to heal hearts, Desmond realizes he is finally ready to forgive, and once doing so becomes free of all the hurt he’s been feeling.

Desmond and the Very Mean Word is ideal for a circle time discussion in elementary school during Bullying Prevention Awareness Month and for Social Science classes to use to explore apartheid and segregation.  The book’s message is a positive one especially when you consider the peaceful paths both Archbishops followed. Ford’s vivid artwork adds just the right combination of mood and locale to the story and helps make this book a truly enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

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