THIS NEXT NEW YEAR
Written by Janet Wong
Illustrated by Yangsook Choi
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000
We are scrubbing our house
rough and raw
so it can soak up good luck
like an empty sponge.
He washes his hair and dries “it extra dry/so it can soak up some good luck, too” He cleans himself from head to toe. He plans to dress up in his cleanest clothes, be brave when they light the firecrackers at midnight, not hide in the crowd during the big parade, and not say anything awful. That’s because he wants to start the New Year off on the right foot. He is hoping to have a second chance. As the boy says:
…I have so many dreams,
so many dreams
Written & illustrated by Kam Mak
This collection of fifteen poems takes readers through the year—from one winter to the next winter—with a young boy who is learning about his new home in American. Mak, who grew up in New York’s Chinatown, speaks in the voice of the boy who is unhappy about having had to leave Hong Kong and his grandmother behind. The book opens with a poem about the New Year.
Back home in Hong Kong,
it’s New Year.
Papa says we’ll have New Year here,
in America, in Chinatown.
Mama says it will be just like home.
But it isn’t home,
Even when the firecrackers
Hiss and crackle all night long
To scare off every evil spirit in the world.
The next morning he hopes to find a whole firecracker in the “drifts of red paper” littering the street—but he can’t find one “even though the air dances/with scraps of red/a snowfall the color of luck.”
The boy misses his grandmother and her pickled kumquats, which his mother doesn’t know how to make. He doesn’t “want to go to school where he says “the English words/taste like metal in my mouth.”
As the boy explores Chinatown, he introduces us to this ethnic neighborhood where he watches a cobbler working with leather, accompanies his mother to a market where she selects a carp from a big tank where the fish “are crowded/nose to tail, scale to scale,” stops by a bird shop “where it sounds/like the woods in spring,” and visits his favorite shop filled with animal kites, bowls and chopsticks, bamboo snakes—all manner of things that remind him of his home in Hong Kong.
The boy, sad at having had to leave so many things behind in Hong Kong—including his animal chess game, is excited one evening when his father brings home a surprise package for him. Inside the package, the boy finds a chess game.
Inside, the red and green pieces sleep close together.
But on the board, the cat pounces on the mouse,
the mouse terrifies the elephant.
And I beat my sister.
Just like home.
Through the course of the year, the young boy begins to adapt to his new surroundings. The sights and sounds and foods and shops of Chinatown have made him feel at home in America.
The collection ends as it began—with a poem about the New Year. The boy is excited. He knows there will be noodles and sweet rice cakes for breakfast…and lions in the street outside his apartment.
I fly downstairs to be there
when they come—
shaking their neon manes.
This is Chinatown!
Mak’s realistic paintings of the boy’s mother busy at her sewing machine, the boy playing chess with his sister, the cobbler punching holes in leather, carps in a fish tank, a sidewalk food cart, and the head of a New Year lion complement the poems about this young boy’s experiences and feelings during the course of his first year away from the country of his birth. The free verse poems give readers a true flavor of Chinatown. Both the text and the art provide a glimpse inside the mind of an immigrant child who is learning to accept the changes to his life in a new country.
Edited to add: Click here to view eight illustrations from My Chinatown at Kam Mak's Web site.Click here for a review of Grace Lin’s new picture book, Bringing in the New Year, and some Lunar New Year Links.