Long before COVID-19 was on our radar, back when we were only worried about the common cold, I had a fabulous visit with the Cottage Street Elementary School in Sharon for World Read Aloud Day (February 5, 2020). What amazed me, as always, was how deep and real and fabulous the students’ questions were about my picture books. These First Graders and Kindergarteners were such discerning readers, asking all sorts of questions about writing and dragons. If all goes well, I will venture back to their school in April to create a few Double Happiness poems.
Here’s to Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017! I chose The Nian Monster, by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Alina Chau, and published by Albert Whitman, an award-winning children’s book publisher since 1919.
Confession! I am completely biased. I have loved The Nian Monster ever since I heard Andrea Wang read her manuscript at one of our writing retreats. Wang and I both belong to the Erin Murphy Literary Agency (aka The Agency with the Best Client Retreats). And, yes, Alina Chau illustrated my book, Double Happiness, so I fell in love with her water colors quite some time ago.
That said, who wouldn’t want to take a journey with The Nian Monster? Wang has created a thoroughly beguiling story of the Chinese New Year with her feisty character, Xingling. Xingling is as loveable as Kungfu Panda and smart and wily as Word Girl.
For years the Nian Monster has been afraid to return to Shanghai during the new year because of the three things— “loud sounds, fire, and the color red.” However, Nian has grown accustomed to these tricks and has returned this year to devour Shanghai. Of course Nian begins to realize what a wise, brave girl is challenging him. Xingling knows that the way to tackle this pesky monster is through his mind and his stomach, as well as a few firecrackers in the end.
With Wang’s lyrical text and Chau’s heart-warming illustrations, children will want to jump into Chinese New Year in this new way. They might even discover a unique way to frighten the Nian Monster, perhaps with a few Shanghai dumplings of their own.
Well, how about them apples? Actually, in this case I should say, “How about them boxes?” Thanks to the ingenious Kirsten Cappy and her Curious City, I now have a beautiful activity kit to go along with my book, Double Happiness (Chronicle Books). You may link to it here, or find it under the Educational Programs. I hope teachers and librarians use this activity to create poetry with their young readers. Best!
At some point in your life you may have come across the Chinese characters that mean “double happiness.” To make this symbol, the character for “happy” is basically repeated, so you have “happy happy” next to one another, creating an extra joyful effect. It might look traditional like this. Or more modern or simplified like this.
And while this explanation appears quite simple, there’s a heap of tradition behind the concept of “double happiness.”
Traditionally, “double happiness” is found at Chinese weddings on the invitations, hanging on the walls, imprinted on the napkins. After all weddings are happy occasions. In the past, calligraphers would paint the characters, each one made artistically in red or black ink. Now, to save time, they are printed or stamped.
But how, you might ask, does all of this relate to a children’s book with the same name? Believe it or not, my idea for Double Happiness began as a “rainy day” story. I imagined the two main characters, a brother and sister, being typical kids who are bored out of their minds on a rainy day. Their father is trying to fix a leak in their ceiling, so he instructs Gracie and Jake to find two boxes and fill them with treasures they discover around their home. This is his desperate attempt to keep them busy. Being Asian-American father, he calls them “double happiness” boxes.
Turns out, that idea wasn’t too appealing to editors. The story “needed more movement.” So I thought, why not a real move? Gracie and Jake could be moving from the west coast to the east coast. Why not? To deal with this hugely traumatic event, Gracie and Jake’s wise grandmother (Nai Nai) hand them each a box with the instructions to collect four treasures each along the way. Jake imagines he is like a dragon, searching for the best treasure. And in many ways, Gracie is like the phoenix, who handles this change in her life with grace. Ahh. See, it was all coming together now.
Wait, you say! Where did this phoenix and dragon come from? Wasn’t it hard enough to learn about “double happiness?” Well, like the yin and yang of life, (when opposites complement one another), the phoenix and the dragon blend together nicely in Chinese tradition. The dragon represents power and strength. He was the symbol used by the emperors of old. The phoenix represents grace and wisdom. She was used by the empresses of old. Together they create a whole, and so they often appear next to the “double happiness” character at weddings.
Perhaps Kirkus Review said it best: “Double happiness, traditionally a wish for newlyweds in Chinese culture, expands to key moments here: for sister and brother, for two memory boxes, and step by step, for a former home to a new one.” Well now, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Sometimes we have to put a bit of effort into finding happiness, just as Gracie and Jake do, but it’s worth the journey. Sometimes we end up being doubly happy along the way.