Happy Lunar New Year Happy Go KL families! This Lunar New Year is an extra special one, as for the first time in two years many of us were able to travel interstate or visit homes other than our own for reunions with our loved ones.
The Chinese New Year, a part of the larger Lunar New Year celebrations, spans 15 days for Chinese families in Malaysia, Singapore, China and around the world.
As we move into week two of the Chinese and Lunar New Year, I would like to share with you some of my family’s favourite annual reads and related craft activities. They have helped to shed more light behind the meaningful traditions observed during this time. We hope your families will enjoy them too.
For little ones (3 – 5 years)
My 8-year-old twins enjoyed these books as toddlers and still love flipping through them even now.
For those with very little ones, you can explore Chinese New Year Colors and its read-aloud here in English and Chinese using this cute board book by Rich Lo.
Hannah Eliot has written many lovely board books on cultural festivals as part of her Celebrate the World series. We especially love her Lunar New Year one that highlights a city child’s Lunar New Year experience, like observing the new moon from a mall or the balcony of a high-rise, spring cleaning, playing with firecrackers, watching lion and dragon dances, and enjoying festive meals with family. It also shares key stories and simple, child-friendly explanations about the significance of symbols related to the season. The delightful, whimsical illustrations by Alina Chau really bring the story to life.
I highly recommend buying the hard copy, but you can also enjoy the read-aloud here.
Books by American Chinese author Grace Lin, winner of the 2022 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, are a perennial favourite in our household. In the early years, we have relied on books that she has written and / or illustrated like Dim Sum for Everyone or Round Is A Mooncake to fill the cultural gap, in the absence of more local Southeast Asian books featuring Chinese celebrations and experiences.
Bringing in the New Year’s large format brightly-coloured art and fun text evokes all the five senses, bringing to life not only the sights but also the sounds, smells, sensations and tastes of the Chinese New Year; making it a real joy to read to children. You can find the read-aloud here.
For little ones learning to read – in English and Chinese (6 – 8 years)
As my kids are now independent English readers, we have progressed to picture books with slightly more sophisticated content and words, books they can attempt to read on their own but we can still read together. Many of these stories are complemented by good discussion guides and related craft activities to help children appreciate the characters and context of the story better.
My children are now learning Chinese in school, so we have also recently purchased some good bilingual books and picture books featuring simple Mandarin text on the topic. Our favourite supplier for such books is Live & Love Book House run by an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lim who speak some English and can give great recommendations.
Our twins have heard many versions of the Nian monster story, but their current favourite is this modern retelling by Andrea Wang, simply called The Nian Monster. It explores the scenario of Nian appearing in many famous locations in modern day Shanghai (you can show children photographs of these actual sites) but eventually he is being outsmarted by a little Chinese girl, who appeals to Nian’s love of delicious food found during the festive period. The lovely light illustrations, again by Alina Chau, cast Nian in a formidable yet adorable light. Find the read-aloud version here.
Take children’s understanding to the next level with this great teacher’s discussion guide. There are also good craft activity guides. My children made cute Nian origami bookmarks using the provided template and video. Further activities are provided here. Talking about the details and making something with their hands help children to notice details about the story, its characters and cultural elements better.
We also love this version of The Great Race by Christopher Corr. The striking illustrations, that marry the colourful style of traditional Chinese folk paintings with contemporary elements and dynamic text make the book a truly memorable read. Have a look at the read-aloud version here.
In our house, we also complemented the reading of this book by making tiger bookmarks using this video from Red Ted Art to mark the Year of the Water Tiger. Children who are keen can even make a full set of bookmarks featuring all the animals of the Chinese zodiac following this guide. Older kids can try this one from Origami Tree.
The Story Behind Chinese New Year’s Eve and The Story of the New Year Cake are two books from the very informative bilingual Stories of Folk Customs series. The former, an alternate retelling that features the monster Xi and the son of the God of Agriculture named Nian, explains why Chinese New Year’s Eve is known as ‘Nian Chu Xi’ (which means ‘Nian Eliminating Xi’). The latter talks about the origins of ‘Nian Gao’, the sticky rice cake that is consumed during this period.
I personally love A New Year’s Reunion (written by Yu Li-Qiong and illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Liang) so much that I bought both English and Chinese versions! This poignant, richly illustrated story about families with migrant worker parents in China won the prestigious Feng Zikai Chinese Children’s Picture Book Award in 2009. It will definitely resonate with many families who have been separated by the pandemic. The story shows us how the strong love within a family can endure time and distance. The farewell exchange between the little girl and her dad at the end is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. You can find the read-aloud to the English version here.
For independent readers (8 – 12 years)
Our twins have also started reading chapter books. Here are some good ones you can try that feature Chinese New Year themes.
The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days are books in a Chinese New Year inspired series written by the earlier mentioned Grace Lin. The series follows a little American Chinese girl named Pacy Lin as she navigates each Chinese New Year, interacts with her multicultural family, forges new friendships, discovers her talent for writing and travels to visit her mother’s family in Taiwan.
Any parents here who were fans of Nancy Drew growing up? Well, you can revisit the series with your kids through this read, The Chinese New Year Mystery (Nancy Drew Notebooks #39). The story follows the young sleuth as she and her friends get into the Chinese New Year spirit and try to help find the dragon costume (that their third-grade class made for the parade) that goes missing.
I hope you and your families enjoy the rest of the festive break and also get into the Chinese New Year spirit with these reads and crafts!
Li-Hsian Choo left a career in corporate communications to become a freelance writer and full-time mum to twins, one who is a child with Down syndrome. As an active inclusive education and children’s arts literacy advocate, she regularly contributes to parenting magazines and other mainstream lifestyle publications. Li-Hsian has co-written three children’s picture books, and is also the co-facilitator of the Art Discovery Tours for Kids and coordinator of children’s programmes at the ILHAM Gallery in KL. You can also follow Li-Hsian’s parenting journey on her Instagram account.