Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Two Books for Chinese New Year

Written by
Janet Wong
Illustrated by
Yangsook Choi
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000

A young American boy of Chinese and Korean heritage narrates this book about Chinese New Year and the preparations and traditions associated with this special “lunar” holiday. The boy explains the things he and his family do before the arrival of “this next new year.” He helps clean the house to remove the bad luck and make room for good luck.

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

I’m ready

to make
come true.

Wong skillfully employs a boy’s childlike voice that rings true in its simplicity. Choi’s colorful, energetic illustrations add to the celebratory nature of this picture book that would be an excellent book to read aloud to young children for Chinese New Year.

Written & illustrated by Kam Mak
HarperCollins, 2002

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—
leaping, pouncing,
prancing, roaring,
jumping dancing,
shaking their neon manes.
Drums beat
feet stamp
hands clap
voices shout
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.


Jules at 7-Imp said...

Thanks, Grace. I'm going to look for these. My daughters LOVE Grace's new book. My almost-four-year-old keeps asking me to read it again and again and is in love with the end papers . . . (By the way, we've got some art work from it today at 7-Imp).

So anyway, I think they might enjoy these books, too. Thanks!

Jules, 7-Imp

Elaine Magliaro said...


Isn't Grace's art in the book just awesome? I love the way she uses colors, patterns, and swirls.

I think your girls will like "This Next New Year." BTW, Janet Wong is of Chinese and Korean heritage--just like the young boy in the book.

gail said...

I'm heading to the library and bookstore today. I'll look for these. And I'll tell ya, if "My Chinatown" is at the bookstore, I will probably come home with it! I love discovering new (new to me) authors and illustrators. One look at that cover and I just had to head over to Kam Mak website. I absolutely love his work!

Thanks for the reviews Elaine,

Elaine Magliaro said...


I really like Mak's illustrations in "My Chinatown"--and the way he uses perspective in some of the pictures. Have you seen his art for Laurance Yep's "The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty & the Beast Tale?" It's gorgeous!

gail said...

I haven't seen any of his books yet Elaine, just images online. I struck out yesterday but did request the titles you mentioned, plus "The Year of the Panda" from another library. It seems like whenever I go to B&N with a list they NEVER have what I'm looking for!

Can't wait to see more.