[Image Descriptions: Feature of an inner page of The Nian Monster by Wang & Chau, featuring an energetic cyclone of dragon dancers surrounding a pleased-looking, but bloodthirsty Nian monser sitting on a throne of fireworks. Behind the Nian, a clever little girl prepares to light the firecrackers.]
In this post: Stereotype-free (and amazing) picture books celebrating the Lunar New Year
Xingling from The Nian Monster is the kick-ass Asian hero I’ve been searching for my whole life.
Growing up, I had ZERO kick-ass femme Asian heroes. We had:
- Meek Aja from Jem
- Aany Claudia stuffing her face through The Babysitters Club
- A vaguely ethnic-looking barbie doll (I think she was Hawaiian?)
- And Deedee from the cheesy band, The Party.
(Just me? Do you guys remember that band? I had a poster and everything!)
They were okay, I guess.
And then I saw The Heroic Trio and I was like, “WHAAAAAT?! YES! MORE! – ALL OF IT!!!”
Clever, smart, conniving, even, these kick-ass Chinese women. And heroic! And it only took NINETEEN YEARS for this kind of powerful representation to show up for little Asian girls in picture books.
Spark Curiosity with…uhh. Mayhem and Destruction!
So I’m reading like a billion books on the lunar new year, and they are all dry and bland and cutesy. Dumplings. Grandmas. Lanterns. Lion Dancers. Noodles. Yawn.
AND THEN I FOUND THIS!!!!
It’s been the most popular book in our house for over a month. Both boys can’t get enough of it, and I’m still not tired of reading it.
As a modern spin on the folktale of the Nian, clever Xingling saves all of Shanghai from destruction in the new year by outwitting the fierce (and omg so adorable) Nian monster.
Working in some basics on celebrating the lunar new year, I was able to introduce these ideas to my son without getting didactic and boring.
I want a Nian plush, this monster is so freaking cute. It was the perfect way to spin the terrifying story of a monster who wants to consume everything we hold dear into something my kids can get through with a giggle.
I love the (mild) mayhem and destruction, as people flee while clutching their cell phones. I love that the illustrator doesn’t resort to slant-eyes. I love the irreverent writing. I love that Xingling’s first instinct is to shout ‘Ai-ya!’ because it brings me back to my grandmother’s kitchen when I hear that.
I love this damn book so damn much.
The Problem with Chinese New Year
Now there’s an issue with celebrating the Lunar New Year in the US. It’s something I’ve fallen for, too, growing up ABC (American-born Chinese).
It uhh….never occurred to me until a couple years ago that the Lunar New Year doesn’t exclusively belong to the Chinese.
I’ve spent a couple years searching for more diverse representation in Lunar New Year traditions, and have found some decent ones worth exploring, listed below. This way, we can teach our kids that the people of East Asia and the Pacific Islands aren’t just satellites of China, but rich and complex cultures that have a weight and significance all their own.
Awesome Lunar New Year Books
Arm yourself with a diverse range of experiences and traditions this lunar new year, and celebrate the death of the China-doll (and China-only) stereotype.
Captioned age ranges are for when my sons were able to understand and enjoy each story. The rest of the images in this post are book covers of titles referenced before the images.
*Books by Asian Authors and/or illustrators are marked with an asterisk. (#NothingAboutUsWithoutUs & #OwnVoices). This seems like a weird thing to highlight, since all the books in this collection are written or at least illustrated by Asian makers, but this is SO RARE for topics on disability and indigenous culture. Hmm… INTERESTING.
*The Nian Monster (China – Shanghai)
THIS IS THE ABSOLUTE BEST. Engaging, witty, funny. A new spin on the Nian monster folktale set in modern-day Shanghai.
Xingling is a quick-thinker and tricks the Nian monster into delaying his devour(ation?) of the entire city.
Our favorite device, repeated through the book: “Nian stroked one pointy horn. ‘You are wise, little one. Noodles first, then you, then the city.”
I Just LOVE how ridiculous and silly and mischievous it is, with this clever trickster girl. I love the images of the Nian monsetr wrecking up the place and people fleeing while clutching cell phones. I love how adorable and non-frightening this terrifying monster is, and I want a plush version of him.
I love how this teaches my littles the connection between the decorations and traditions and foods we eat and what it has to do with the traditional folktale, in a new way that gives a girl power and agency. I love the modern landmarks of Shanghai, re-imagined with a giant monster destroying them. I love this goddamn book so goddamn much.
*New Clothes For New Year’s Day (Korea)
This one about the Korean New Year (Seollal) is a spectacular, simple book for litles.
The illustrations and story are engaging and beautiful. I am actually both bummed and baffled as to why this is the only book made by this author.
It’s also the only book that doesn’t mush all Eastern new-year celebrations together as if they are pale copycats of Chinese new year. This celebrated the beauty of Korean culture and allows the celebration to stand on its own.
The little girl in this story is excited to put on her new hanbok for New Year’s day! Such a sweet, simple book perfect for younger kids.
*A New Year’s Reunion (China)
So this is a super cute story, but it’s also bittersweet and gives me FEELINGS that I’m not sure what to do with. I wish this book had a call to action – a specific act, an organization to reach out to.
We get a glimpse into a short few days in the life of a little girl (maybe 3ish) when she’s reunited with her father during Chinese New Year.
Her father is a migrant worker, which means he needs to travel hundreds (thousands?) of miles away to support his family, and they only see each other once a year for the holiday celebration.
::Initiate my silent, but constant, leak of tears::
Together, they do things mundane and transcendent – get haircuts, catch up on handy-work around the house, and snuggle together in bed, whispering late into the night.
We were walloped with the impact of migrant economies on families. We saw what it means to be mindful of every moment with someone we love, knowing it will end too soon.
Heartstrings -> pulled. I want this adorable little girl, with her stubby toddler legs and pudgy little cheeks to have her daddy every day. I want a better world for them.
I don’t know why I thought this was a problem only in America. Stories like Pancho Rabbit And The Coyote feel close-to-home. It feels like we have some control over the health and safety of migrant laborers by aiding local organizations. But ooof. This hardship is a global, human issue.
So for now, we’ll settle for reading stories like this to learn what’s going on. We’ll snuggle the babies we get to see every day. And we’ll keep fighting for economic equality and family rights. And we’ll teach our kids to fight for that, too.
*Ten Mice For Tet! (Vietnam)
Vietnamese Tet: This one I mostly love because of the illustrations. You can’t tell from the image online, but it looks like the artist embroidered the illustrations on every page of this book.
I was like WHAAAT that is SO much work and such a labor of artistry!
The story is simple – it’s more of a counting book. From the story on its own, I can’t tell how Têt is any different than Chinese New Year, but the end-pages include some helpful, but brief, notes on the significance of the traditions on each page. I wish it wasn’t divided like that, since that leaves the onus on adults to parse the end notes and explain it to kids (which means we don’t really NEED the book, just wikipedia). But it’s a good jumping off point.
* Dragon New Year (China)
Oh! If your kids like traditional folktals, try this one too. I was a good runner-up, with more of a heavy feel.
Q loved it (age 5.5), but only if we skipped the framing story around it. This author tends to do a story-within a story for his books, but it’s completely unnecessary and the outer story of a grandma and granddaughter are kind of boring.
The inner story is cool though – featuring a kick-ass elderly lady. Take THAT, ageism!
Mostly, my son loves it because it features a water dragon (his Chinese zodiac sign) and Buddha, who he’s been a fan of since he recently developed a love for anything having to do with The Monkey King.
*Sam And The Lucky Money (Chinatown, US)
It’s rare to find a story that tells us a bit about cultural holidays without beating us over the head with traditions, foods, and details. I like that this story normalizes the lucky red envelopes we give to children on Chinese New Year, but I LOVE where the story takes it.
It always made me delighted-and-uncomfortable to receive lucky money on New Years. Yay, free money!
But also I get uncomfortable with getting gifts I didn’t earn (I guess it wouldn’t be a gift, then? The whole gift economy baffles me). In particular, it felt weird to get money just because I was a kid, when there were clearly more pressing, urgent matters adults needed cash for, like food and shelter.
So Sam gets $4 in his lucky money envelope and he’s happy with it until he realizes that $4 won’t get him that far in the toy stores. As one BFL reader pointed out, this is ridiculous, because no Chinese person would ever give such an unlucky number as lucky money, so I guess the author was trying to make a point with the $4, but I’m not sure what it is.
Cue inevitable grouchy entitled kid-behavior. Then he realizes that his $4 doesn’t seem like much to him – but it’s value is much greater when given to the homeless guy freezing outside with no shoes on.
My only caveat for this story is those dated, bland, dreary illustrations popular in the 90’s, which turned the kids (and me) off. It was good for a couple reads, but despite the helpful, timely moral while we celebrate the new year, they weren’t having it for more than a couple reads.
*Dumpling Soup (Hawaii – US Island of Oahu)
A Hawaiian family on the island of Oahu celebrates the new year.
I’ll admit, this story is kind of didactic and boring, but it’s so rare to find a story featuring multiracial families & Hapas, so I have to include it. The family is mainly Korean, but includes Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian & Haole (white) family members.
They celebrate a mishmash new year together as a family, based mostly on Korean traditions.
* Dragon Dance (China)
Throwing this in here not because it’s spectacular, but because of all the cutesy, didactic stories, this one held my toddler’s fascination better than the rest.
They cheat – there are flaps! But also the illustrations are cheery and cute, without stereotypical slant-eyes. The flaps are reasonably sturdy, so it works well for the younger crowd.
*The Seven Gods of Luck (Japan) – Problematic
Still searching for a super-engaging story-based book featuring the Japanese new year, but for now, this kinda vanilla one will have to do.
Initially, I was not a huge fan of there being seven gods and the only woman is the goddess of beauty – but I was like, “Welp, patriarchy is a worldwide issue. Whatcha gonna do?”
After more research, I found that she’s actually the goddess of arts and knowledge, so why did the makers have to reduce her influence to just beauty? And now I’m just angry. Why did this author dude have to do that?!
*Japanese Traditions (Japan)
Oh gosh I’m dying, this is SUPER adorable. All the characters are kittens and cats. It’s not really about the Lunar New Year specifically – BUT YOU GUYS. CATS.
The author goes through each month highlighting popular traditions and celebrations, plus everyday games they’d do for fun in the coldest days of winter, how they’d stay warm, crafts, games, typical dinners, seasonal activities and festivals. The end of book even has some search & find items.
This book must have taken forever to illustrate, and it’s so well thought-out you could plan a year around it. SO GOOD. So cute! ALSO: CATS!
*This Next New Year (US – Multiracial Korean & Chinese character with friends of various ethnicities)
Another multiracial one! But also – still kiiiinda boring!
‘This Next New Year’ features a Korean/Chinese boy celebrating the new year, as well as his non-Chinese friends integrating their own spin on the lunar new year festivities.
Some of them are a little appropriation-y (like the French/German friend who gets Thai takeout to celebrate what we consider a significant cultural holiday) but the premise aims for inclusion. Okay. Sure.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & 恭禧發財 (Happy New Year)!
I’ll keep updating this collection as I come across more great lunar new year books. So if you don’t want to miss more great stories…
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