Less than a week ago, notable Aussie author / illustrator and prodigious writer for children, Rebecca Lim, release her latest action-packed middle grade series, Children of the Dragon. Book One: The Relic of the Blue Dragon promises magic, mystery and martial arts and I know for one already has young primary aged readers perched avidly on the edge of their seats.
You’ve finally found a spot for all those new toys. You’ve organised your post-Christmas reading pile. You’ve dutifully noted your New Year’s resolutions. Time to relax. Well, SURPRISE! There’s more. It’s New Year’s all over again; a time to celebrate, rejoice and welcome new beginnings, this time with the flair of Asia.
Stunning new picture book, New Year Surprise! by award-winning author, Christopher Cheng and fine artist, Di Wu joins the informative raft of entertaining and insightful children’s books depicting the Asian cultural tradition (namely Chinese) of celebrating the Spring Festival.
I have many favourites on this topic, which bring back fantastic childhood memories of feasting, lion dancing and of course, receiving those coveted ‘ tau hongbau’ red money packets. Titles like Long Long’s New Year by Catherine Gower, Sally Rippin’s Fang Fang’s Chinese New Year, Gabrielle Wang’s, exquisite The Race for the Chinese Zodiac, and to a less celebratory degree, The Magic Brush by Kat Yeh introduce young readers to a celebration steeped in tradition and spellbinding superstition.
New Year Surprise! focuses less on the legend of Nian – the original monster who used to terrorise Chinese villagers annually until they learned ways to thwart his evilness and scare him away (with red paper and irritating fireworks). This charming picture book takes place in a traditional rural northern Chinese village where life still follows an ancient and simple route and festivals such as Chinese New Year shape and colour family and community life.
The prospect of the imminent festival excites Little Brother and he craves to be involved with the preparations. His brothers, father, and friends tell him he is too small to be of any use though; he is not strong enough to hold a dragon pole, he cannot reach to hang the lanterns, he has already helped serve tea and light the firecrackers. So what could the ‘special job’ be that his father promises he can do?
Over the week, Little Brother’s relatives arrive and celebrate with sumptuous feasts and Grandfather’s timeless stories. The atmosphere is rich with colour, joy, and positive expectations for a prosperous and lucky year ahead. Yet Little Brother remains at a loss as to his particular role in the festivities. It is not until the climax of the festival, the mesmerising dance of the serpentine dragon, that Father finally reveals Little Brother’s most significant role.
Cheng’s first person narrative places readers firmly within the snug folds of Little Brother’s padded jacket so that rather than feel the chill of his snow-covered home, we sympathise with his frustrated longing to contribute. Cheng infuses just the right amount of Chinese heritage and terminology to establish authenticity without swamping little minds with too much unfamiliar culture, although I wager most people will instantly recognise the Gong Xi Fa Cai! New Year salutation without too much difficulty.
As evocative as the scent of incense wafting on a breeze, Di Wu’s illustrations are painted using traditional Chinese brushes on rice paper and are exquisitely faithful to the traditional colours and textures of Chinese paintings. New Year Surprise! is a merger of art, words, and culture that works as well as dumplings and tea.
As with many National Library publications, the joy of the reading experience extends after the story has ended with explanatory notes on this and on other festivals in China, some familiar, others an exotic new revelation. A marvellous way to embrace and honour a fascinating culture for early primary schoolers and above.
To experience a taste of one of the most significant festivals on the Chinese calendar (normally occurring in February or March) grab yourself a copy of New Year Surprise!, here. This Chinese New Year will be the Year of the Monkey and officially is celebrated on the 8th of February with festivities spanning from the 7th to the 22nd February.
National Library Australia February 2016