Postcard from Planet Esme|
by Esmé Codell
Planet Esmé (www.planetesme.com)
Dim Sum and Then Some: Discovering China with Children's Books!
Back from a trip to Chinatown, where lucky red firecrackers are strung from store windows and dumplings steam on welcoming trays of dim sum…a warm contrast to the icy winds of Chicago's bitter winter winds! "Gung Hay Fat Choi " is the friendly greeting here; in other words, Happy Chinese New Year! According to the Chinese Zodiac, children born in this Year of the Sheep (or the Goat, some may say) will be sensitive, creative, destined to be humanitarians and great lovers of the arts. The onset of such an auspicious year deserves great read-alouds celebrating both the holiday and the culture in your classroom.
The best book for background knowledge is Demi's picture book Happy New Year! Kung-Hsi Fa-Ts'Ai, which has absolutely everything you could want to know about all the symbols and traditions of the holiday. The illustrations are done with Demi's trademark delicacy (she sometimes uses a real mouse's whisker to paint!), and gilded with gold. For an awesome bulletin board display, duplicate a favorite page on to an overhead transparency, trace the image on to some butcher paper, color and cut out. Then on to The Chapman Award-winning teacher resource Moonbeams, Dumplings and Dragon Boats from the Children's Museum of Boston for plenty of classroom craft ideas, some clever Chinese riddles, games and recipes.
On to the stories! You can turn to old water chestnuts like Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel (I confess I love it) or The Story About Ping by Marjorie Flack, our favorites as children, and probably our grandmother's favorites, too. Though the story lines are delightful, some of the depictions are stereotypical; this can be used as a springboard for discussion. For instance, compare The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop to the modern retelling The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy. How does literature reflect the mores of the period in which it is published? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each telling? Other comparisons your class can make are between popular folktales and their Chinese cousins: check out Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China and Lon Po Po, A Red-Riding Hood Story from China both illustrated by Caldecott winner Ed Young, and lavishly illustrated The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale by Laurence Yep and illustrated by Kam Mak. Even older children can gain volumes from these seemingly simple picture books through such thoughtful discussion and comparisons. Break out the Venn diagrams!
Another stereotype that can be explored through children's literature is the role of girls in Chinese culture. Hopefully, everyone is already familiar with the wonderful work of Jan Brett, and her teacher-friendly website www.janbrett.com (if you are unfamiliar with her work, this is your lucky day!). In Daisy Come Home, Brett takes a break from her signature Scandinavian motifs and tries on Asia for size…I must say, she wears it well! Follow energetic Daisy and her equally spirited chicken as they problem-solve their way out of some harrowing situations. Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully is action packed and will have both girls and boys gasping at ancient battle scenes that rival Luke and Darth Vader. Red-ribboned rebel Ruby in Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges manages to get an education while training for wifely duties, and Jane Yolen's The Emperor and the Kite features a daughter who starts out shy but manages to save her father from evil conspirators.
China is rich in legend. Children will enjoy exploring their personal traits after The Rooster's Antlers: A Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Eric A. Kimmel. Learning is the theme in the enlightening double-trouble storybook The Master Swordsman & the Magic Doorway: Two Legends from Ancient China by Alice Provensen. The Story of Chopsticks and The Story of Noodles both by Ying Chang Compestine offer clever explanations for these common Chinese pantry items, but my personal favorite by this author is the altruistic tale, The Runaway Rice Cake. In it, a hungry family shares food with the needy, with magical results. What is most magical of all, though, is how perfectly the unusual rice cake comes out if you follow the recipe on the back of the book!
Haikus are a Chinese form of short poetry that your class might enjoy reading and writing. Such little treasures are even more appealing when wrapped in a fortune cookie, so visit http://www.planetesme.com/fortunecookie.html for a bite.
Does this whet your appetite? You don't have to cross the Pacific to get a taste of the culture; China comes to America in children's picture books as well. Just look at all these excellent titles that introduce an immigrant theme while celebrating the holiday and the people in an inclusive, modern context:
Big Jimmy's Kum Kau Chinese Take Out by Ted Lewin
Chinatown by William Low
Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan's Chinese New Year by Kate Waters (bold photographs give this book a special immediacy)
My Chinatown: One Year in Poems by Kam Mak
Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn
This Next New Year by Janet S. Wong, Yangsook Choi (shows children of many cultures celebrating the holiday)
And there are chapter book read-alouds for older listeners, too:
House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert De Jong (see if you can read the last chapter without crying!)
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord (A Newbery honor book, and an incredible child's-eye view of the immigrant experience)
Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear by Lensey Namioka (note: Shanghai is now in China)
The Year of the Panda by Miriam Schlein
The Chinese New Year festival climaxes on the fifteenth day of the first moon, or the Lantern Festival (falling on February 15th this year, 2003). The grand finale of your read-alouds might be The Paper Dragon by Marguerite W. Davol, featuring peaceful problem-solving and stunning paper-cut illustrations by Robert Sabuda that fold out for miles and are sure to get plenty of ooohhs and ahhhhhs. Then, you can make your own lanterns and bring in the full moon with a cheerful parade of your own! They say lanterns scare away evil spirits…maybe it will drive away maniacal principals and litigious parents, too! (We can dream, can't we?)
You don't need a fortune cookie to know that your students will grow to be wise when you use children's literature to celebrate this holiday to the fullest. So chao-ts'ai chin-pao…may you have wealth and treasures…found in books!
Happy Reading Always,
Esmé Raji Codell, Site Director
Also of interest:
- Unloveable Love Stories!
If your students gag over the mush and gush of Valentine's Day, romance them with the read-alouds at http://www.planetesme.com/unlovable.html
- Come out of hibernation!
Wake up and wrap your class in the luxurious feel of fur! Cozy bear stories abound at http://www.planetesme.com/
- Flu Season bringing down attendance?
Send home good books along with homework, chicken soup and vitamin C. Sick day stories at http://www.planetesme.com/
- Celebrate Black History Month!
Recipients of the Coretta Scott King Award are authors and illustrators of African descent whose distinguished books promote an understanding and appreciation of the "American Dream." Black is indeed beautiful, and your students will see it every time you use the winners at http://www.ala.org/srrt/csking
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