This is a terrific series of books for children, to read aloud and for primary aged kids to read independently. Each tale centres on an animal from the Chinese Zodiac and draws on the animal’s characteristics, strengths and foibles to retell a traditional folktale or provide a contemporary interpretation that entertains, amuses and provides insights into the human condition.
The Tale of Pin Yin Panda explains how the animals were chosen for the Zodiac, with both the Panda and the Cat out of the race and missing out on selection. Spread across a panorama of Chinese history, the stories’ settings and events capture snapshots of China – history, significant people, lifestyle, customs and culture.
Set in the 1300s, the Chinese Emperor Han Wudi’s desire to own the greatest steed on earth is told in The Tale of Dark Horse, and provides an explanation for the opening of the silk road. In the very recent past, in The Tale of Run Run Rat, the star rodent travels the length of China to arrive in Beijing on the eve of the Olympic marathon. A story of greed and jealousy unfolds in The Tale of Oswald Ox when Oswald is retired from the hard work on the farm. Rural life and animals are captured brilliantly, with personalities bristling in every animal.
Harry Harrison’s detailed, exotic, colourful cartoon-styled illustrations are superbly suited to the format, embellishing the stories through clever and canny strokes of the pen to accentuate the personalities of the characters. His execution of rats is remarkable (and my favourite of all the animal renditions) – infused with life and personality – not just as star characters but integral to a number of tales. And a pair of insects trip across every page of each book to add to the amusement and entertainment. Written in verse, the stories roll off the tongue, the text leaps, curves and shouts across the pages and tension builds as each character’s story unfolds. In this Year of the Monkey (and a very good year it is), why not start your Zodiac Tales with The Tale of Ming Kee Monkey and The Tale of Rodney the Ram, shortlisted for the Golden Dragon Book Awards, Younger Reader category.
The Chinese Calendar Tales are available in Australia from INT Books, along with Sarah’s earlier picture books, The Dirty Story and An Even Dirtier Story.