WOW Review: Reading Across Cultures


A New Year’s Reunion
Written by Yu Li-Qiong
Illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Liang
Candlewick, 2011
ISBN: 978-0763658816
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This realistic fiction picture books illustrates a contemporary lifestyle that is supposedly nontraditional yet common for many families in China where family members live apart due to job conditions and meet one or two times a year during national holidays. New Year’s Day, as a national family event, holds for its participants a special gratitude for the reunion of family in addition to the excitement of celebrating a tradition in China. Layers of meaningful joy during this holiday week are portrayed through a young girl, Maomao, and her family and their memorable four days of the New Year.

Maomao lives with her mother because her father works in a construction job that is far away and so he can only come home once a year during the New Year’s celebration. On the first morning of New Years Day, Maomao’s family gets up early and makes sticky rice balls. One of the balls is the lucky one with a hidden coin. Maomao’s mom cooks and serves “piping-hot sticky rice balls” and Maomao bites into the fortune coin ball. Maomao puts the coin away in her pocket for safe-keeping and heads to New Year visits. On the second day, Maomao’s father repairs their house because he cannot help his family while he is gone the rest of year. Maomao joins her father and has a great time with her dad on the house roof. On the third day, it snows “really hard!” and Maomao’s neighborhood friends have a snow fight and make a snowman. When she comes home late, Maomao finds that her fortune coin is gone. Even though she goes back to the courtyard searching for her coin, she has no success. Maomao’s disappointing night is eventually saved when the lucky coin is found. The following morning, her father packs to leave and Maomao gives her fortune coin to her father saying, “Here, take this. Next time you’re back, we can bury it in the sticky rice ball again!”

New Year’s Day is one of the most well known traditional holidays celebrated by Chinese in the U.S. The glamorous look of splendid traditional dances, firecrackers, and exotic Chinese food often is the focus for the mainstream audience. This book invites readers into the context of New Year’s Day to rethink the meaning of a traditional holiday that has evolved to meet social and economic needs while fulfilling its traditional role. While previously family gatherings at the New Year were meant to be a reunion among relatives and extended families, contemporary New Year reunions have evolved as one of the few occasions that a nuclear family might reunite because of their daily work requirements. Thus, the carnival aspects in New Year’s Day are depicted as almost secondary in this book. The family tie is the priority rather than celebratory performances like dragon dances and firecrackers. What this book draws attention to is waiting, reuniting, and celebrating New Year’s Day together. It celebrates a once-a-year visit with a father and smaller scale domestic rituals, which seem to be similar and yet unique among each Chinese family in this book. For example, Maomao and her friend, Dachun’s family use a red envelope for fortune blessing while Maomao’s family uses the fortune coin. Although this is a small indication, recognizing such diversity within a culture is important. Sharing about the fortune coin and red envelope during a New Year’s visit may seem to be an exotic practice to audiences in the U.S., but what is highlighted in the story is Dachun’s sharing about their family being together. Getting up early to make a special lucky rice ball and preparing meals around the tradition of holiday foods shows an authentic home culture observation of the New Year. The family spends those precious three or four days not only involved in loud New Year’s rituals but also to fix and paint their home and symbolically show the true meaning of a New Year’s family reunion. Maomao’s bonding time with father on the house roof, something her mother does not usually allow, shows how New Year’s Day is even a more special day for Maomao.

Although the New Year’s Day is the focus of the story, the themes are family love, patience, and growing up through experience. In the end, Maomao finds her coin and gives it to her father asking him to bring it back for the next New Year’s. This illustrates a surprisingly mature and understanding young girl who, despite her young age, signals to the audience that she might be experienced already in many annual good-byes with her father. Perhaps that explains why “Daddy is very quiet. He nods and hugs me tight.” as he listens to the advice from his daughter. In addition to the universal theme of family love, nontraditional lifestyles, and changing holiday practices, unwritten implications of the contemporary nature of a town in China are richly portrayed throughout the illustrations. There are no stereotypical depictions of people as all looking alike. Instead, there are various contemporary hairdos, stylish padded jackets, leather boots, colorful fruits on the table, a modern backpack, types of pets, fashionable kids’ outfits, and stuffed animals and dolls on beds. These contemporary illustrations show cultural authenticity in Chinese society today and in the town where the family lives.

The fact this book was written for audiences in Taiwan or China reminds readers of the implied audience’s reality and awareness of New Year’s Day in China today. In the U.S., many of our depictions of global countries are historical, not contemporary, and provide a folktale-look of an antiquated China or stereotypical illustrations of people in poverty in China of the past as the typical representation of Chinese culture. This story was published in Taiwan in 2007 and an English translated edition was published in the United States in 2011. The illustrator, Zhu Cheng-Liang and the author, Yu Li-Qiong are both native Chinese and educated in Nanjing, China. Their note states, “The family in this book is a fictional one, but there are in reality over 100 million migrant workers in China, many of whom work hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away from home, returning only once each year, for just a few days, at New Year’s.” This insight speaks in a contemporary voice about the significance of New Year’s Day and perhaps is an indication of social issues in the widening gap between the rich and poor in China.

This book could be read alongside Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic (Ginnie Lo, 2012), Bee-Bim Bop! (Linda Sue Park, 2008), and To Share One Moon (Ruowen Wang, 2008) to explore the theme of enhancing family ties around food. Family participation and food preparation are dynamically orchestrated in these books. The theme of family reunion and separation can be explored across different contexts with Sitti’s Secrets (Naomi Shahib Nye, 1994), From North to South (René Colato Laínez, 2010), and Visiting Day (Jacqueline Woodson, 2002).

Yoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

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