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Gung hay fat choy – Happy Chinese New Year! And not any new year, mind you. 2012 is the year of the golden dragon (which is my dad’s sign) and I’m celebrating it with a book review. Last week we kicked off the Chinese spirit by seeing the Beijing Wushu Team perform an extremely acrobatic martial art show at Stanford University. My girls were excited to see one of the main actors of the movie The Karate Kid on the floor while I marveled at the hyper-flexibility (or absence of joints) of the performers. Now comes the book review.
Today is the actual Chinese New Year day and after moaning that they wished their school was closed, my girls perked up when I offered them this book: The Year of The Dragon by Oliver Chin. Last time we stopped at The Warming Hut they were literally drooling over it and I thought they’d enjoy a copy at home.
Despite the title, Oliver Chin’s The Year of The Dragon is not a traditional tale of the Chinese zodiac but rather a playful spin on the characteristics of a traditional Chinese zodiac animal. It is, in fact, utterly unconventional and that’s probably why my girls like it so much. No big blah blah explanations, no cultural accuracy at all costs. Their main comment when looking at the book was “how cute” the dragon looked. They always fall for the big wide eyes. Well, that’s precisely my issue. The dragon is cutesy, the emperor and empress of China are likable, and even the bad guys are good sports at the end. My point is, the book is sweet in the sweet/saccharine sense. Slightly too much sugar and not enough salt.
While I wished the plot had more bite to it, there are lots of elements that redeem the story. If your family wishes to learn about the Chinese zodiac, it’s a good introduction to the dozen animals that represent the lunar new year in China. Take the dragon’s adventures in this book. To win a boat race organized by the emperor of China, the dragon gets help from his friends the tiger, the goat, the rat, the pig, the ox, the snake, the monkey, the dog, the rooster, the horse and the rabbit. There they are all, all the animals of Chinese astrology, all united to help the main character win his quest. Kids will like looking for them on the pages. After all, isn’t the dragon the mightiest animal of them?
“Remember, dragons are special.” says the dragon’s mother. “No one can soar as swift or swim as deep.” The father dragon adds: “Who blows the winds? Who commands the rain? Who advises the Emperor? We do.” This page alone could trigger afternoons of research at the library or online on the magical powers of dragons.
In this book, I also like how the dragon, usually represented as a master of the skies, becomes the hero of a boat race thereby showing off his aquatic skills and versatility over various elements. Earth, sky, sea – the dragon is apparently quite the multi-tasker. The story’s little dragon is also a creative problem-solver and that’s one quality that will have kids root for him.
Last but not least, the book’s plot revolves around dragon races, a popular midsummer festival celebrated in many parts of the world. If you can find one near you, go see it and read the book before! It’ll be an excellent and recreational tie-in. The San Francisco International Dragonboat Festival takes place in September each year. Now that I’ve described the book in more words that appear on the book’s pages, I’ll say this. Dragons are fascinating creatures for all ages, whether sweet or sour.
The book will be great for…
…. parents of babies born in 2012 or any of the other dragon years. Kids who love anything dragon. Kids who like reading an engaging tale of friendship and leadership in a Chinese setting. Little fans of Nickelodeon’s series T.U.F.F. Puppy for which Jennifer Wood (the illustrator) is an animation designer. Ages preschool through 3rd grade.
Details: The Year of The Dragon