While growing up in Hawai’i, I was always a little jealous of my Chinese friends. They got to celebrate two New Years, once on January 1, and again in late January/early February for Chinese New Year. Moreover, their Chinese New Year was actually a two week Spring festival, where all the children received special red envelopes with money in them.
Though I have long been familiar with many Chinese New Year customs, I did not know very much about the fearful single-horned monster portrayed in the dramatic and colorful lion dance. Thanks to a captivating and delectable new picture book, now we can all meet the famous Nian Monster of ancient legend as he descends upon modern day Shanghai and is cleverly outwitted by a feisty young girl.
In The Nian Monster by Andrea Wang and Alina Chau (Albert Whitman, 2016), young Xingling wonders why all the Chinese New Year decorations are red, so her grandmother (Po Po) tells her all about the Nian Monster — a ferocious creature with “jaws as wide as caverns” and “teeth sharper than swords,” who would get so hungry every Spring, he left his home in the mountains to consume entire villages.
Luckily an old monk discovered Nian’s weaknesses — he was afraid of loud noises, fire, and the color red. From then on, everyone decorated their houses with red banners and lanterns, beat on drums and gongs, and set off lots of firecrackers.
These practices usually kept Nian away, but this time the old tricks didn’t work. Nian becomes extra hungry when he smells the delicious lion’s head casserole Xingling is tending on the stove. He leaps onto the balcony, startling her. Roaring and ravenous, he threatens to devour the city, beginning with Xingling, whom he covets as a “tasty appetizer.”
Ai ya! Now, an average child would have cowered in fear or run away screaming. But brave, quick thinking Xingling doesn’t even flinch — she immediately thinks of a way to thwart him. Food!
Have a bowl of long-life noodles first. If you live longer, you can conquer more cities.
Nian agrees, and lickety split, Xingling dashes over to the noodle shop to ask the head chef to prepare something special for Nian. He slurps, slurps, slurps from the giant bowl until he becomes too stuffed to eat another bite (this is what happens when you attempt to eat the longest noodle in China!).
So Nian delays devouring the city until the next day. This time Xingling tempts him with fish to ensure good fortune. But it turns out to be milkfish, the boniest fish in the sea. Nian’s mouth hurts from all the pricks and pokes, and once again he must put off eating the city for another day.
Xingling then suggests sticky rice cake to sweeten Nian’s future, so Po Po makes a giant one just for him. He loves it and chews and chews till his mouth sticks shut. Can’t eat the city like that — but meanwhile, why not enjoy some fireworks?
The fireworks master agrees to put on a special show just for Nian, and it is simply spectacular — so spectacular, in fact, that, well — you’ll just have to read the story to find out what ultimately happens to our insatiable friend. 🙂
Alina Chau’s dynamic watercolors in vibrant reds and oranges, which were inspired by traditional Chinese folk art, perfectly complement Andrea Wang’s lively and engaging storytelling. A fun read aloud, the narrative is anchored by the magic rule of three (noodles, fish, rice cake), amplified with effective repetition of active verbs (“. . . gulped. And gulped. And gulped,” “stirred and steamed and fried”).
There’s never a dull moment as the plot moves briskly along with lots of suspense and a new delight with every page turn. Kids will love poring over the details of the busy marketplace and will gasp as Nian wreaks havoc at People’s Square and the Huxinting Teahouse. Must I mention that my favorite spreads are the foodie ones (Xingling at the stove, head chef tossing longevity noodles, Xingling and relatives serenely making rice cakes)? 🙂
Interesting Chinese New Year customs are skillfully woven into the plot, as readers are treated to a mini tour of notable Shanghai landmarks.
But of course at the heart of this story — what will prove especially satisfying to young readers — is the empowerment of the main character, who, though physically small, refuses to be intimidated by the giant monster. She saves the city through her own resourcefulness. Kids will enthusiastically root for spirited, bunny-slippered Xingling, from the moment she first wields her wooden spoon at Nian, till she sends him packing at the end.
I also love the blend of old and new as a mythological creature appears in a modern city, an element of fantasy in a realistic setting. Chau’s Nian is animated and fierce, but his vulnerability and somewhat lovable expressions keep him from being too scary.
Chinese New Year 2017 is on Saturday the 28th, and it is the Year of the Rooster! Celebrate by sharing The Nian Monster with all the hungry young readers you know — and of course, be sure to eat some of the symbolic Chinese New Year foods to ensure good health, prosperity, a long life, and a sweet future!
🐓 FLORENCE LIN’S COCONUT STICKY RICE CAKE 🐓
Chinese New Year wouldn’t be the same without Sticky Rice Cake (nian gao). It is traditionally steamed — a round cake made primarily with glutinous rice flour, sugar, flavoring and oil. There are many regional variations, and sometimes the steamed cake is sliced and fried.
We decided to try the baked version we found on Andrea Wang’s website, a recipe originally posted at Jeanette’s Healthy Living, which Jeanette got from her aunt, renowned cookbook author Florence Lin. It calls for coconut milk, low-fat milk, and almond extract (love!).
The recipe was simple to make — just combine all the ingredients and mix well, bake in a 9×13 pan, cool, and slice. As suggested, I waited until the next day to serve it, and it stayed fresh for several days covered in plastic wrap at room temperature. I opted to sprinkle a little chopped nuts over the top rather than incorporate an entire cup into the mixture (I like my rice cakes smooooooth).
When I first glanced at the ingredients, I was surprised to see olive oil. What would that taste like combined with coconut milk and almond extract? I needn’t have worried — it was sooooooo yummy. I am a big mochi fan, and usually love anything made with Mochiko (glutinous rice flour). Will definitely make this again, no need to wait for Chinese New Year. 🙂
I like knowing that by eating this coconut sticky rice cake, I will have a sweet future marked by good fortune and family cohesiveness. 🙂
Florence Lin's Coconut Sticky Rice Cake
- 1 pound Mochiko Sweet Rice flour
- 1-1/2 cups coconut milk
- 1-1/2 cups low-fat milk
- 1-1/4 cup organic sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 cup chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts), or untoasted black and white sesame seeds
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- Place coconut milk, milk, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and oil into a large mixing bowl. Mix well. Add rice flour while stirring. Mix well. Add nuts if desired, or sprinkle on top. Pour into a parchment paper lined 13x9x2 pan.
- Bake for 1 hour.
- Let cool. Cut into squares or diamond shapes.
*You can use one can of coconut milk (13.5 ounces) and add enough milk to make a total of 3 cups liquid. This cake is best served the next day.
Recipe originally posted at Jeanette’s Healthy Living.
THE NIAN MONSTER
written by Andrea Wang
illustrated by Alina Chau
published by Albert Whitman, December 2016
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note with Chinese New Year tidbits and traditions
**Starred Review** from Publishers Weekly
❤️ MORE GOODIES ❤️
🍊 Enjoy the Official Book Trailer:
🍊 Learn more about Alina’s beautiful illustrations for this book in these videos:
🐓 GONG HEY FAT CHOY! 🐓
*Spreads from The Nian Monster posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2016 Andrea Wang, illustrations © 2016 Alina Chau, published by Albert Whitman & Co. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.