Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes

by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz & the Children's Museum, Boston

Illustrated by Meilo So

Published by Harcourt

80 pages, 2002



Moon Cakes and Delight

Reviewed by Monica Stark


I like Chinese New Year more than the New Year celebration attached to my own culture. Ringing in a new year in the west generally involves adult overindulgence. Kids are kept out of the way, quiet... generally unseen and uninvited. That is to say that, in the West, children and New Year's don't really mix.

The celebration of the Chinese New Year is somewhat opposite and so much more. Not only are all family members expected to take part, to a certain degree tradition dictates what role they will play in the festivities. Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats is not exclusively about Chinese New Year but, since it's a book about Chinese high days, discussion of Chinese New Year is an important component.

Of all the Chinese festivals celebrated throughout the year, the Lunar New Year is the most important and spectacular. ... Today the New Year heralds the coming of spring (in China it is called the Spring Festival) and the reunion of the family. And at no other time is there more cause for joyful celebration.

Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats is a delicious cultural reference work for the preschool set. It discusses four of the most important Chinese festivals, including the folklore surrounding them, some of the traditions involved in each and includes stories, craft projects and even some recipes representing each festival. The authors preface the book by saying that, "Although many of the customs we have included are widely shared, there is no single way to celebrate any one of these festivals."

The section on Chinese New Year begins with an overview of the festival itself, including a succinctly-told version of some of the traditions involved. This is followed by a charmingly told version of "The Story of the Kitchen God" which culminates with a page that details how to make New Year Prints, including in the description how to make your own image of the Kitchen God. This is a super project, as it brings the ancient art of print making down to a very primary level: a skillset that children could use for many different projects.

The next project invites children to make Good Luck Characters, by simply copying the characters for good fortune, spring or good luck with black acrylic paint on red paper. This isn't a particularly ambitious project -- nor does it require much in the way of special tools or skills -- and would thus be perfect for younger children.

Another page outlines more of the traditions associated with New Year, followed by a recipe for Vegetable Sticks with Peanut Dip, which the authors suggest could replace the traditional Chinese tray of prosperity. Recipes follow for New Year Dumplings and Crisp-Cooked Vegetarian Noodles. Then another project: this one for a Chinese Shuttlecock (jianzi) made primarily with tissue paper.

The section ends -- appropriately -- with a three page discussion of the Chinese Zodiac. This section does a good job of taking an extremely complicated topic and boiling it down to something even the youngest child will understand: a feat that happens again and again throughout Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats.

From here we segue to discussions of the Lantern Festival. Though, technically, the Lantern Festival is the climax of Chinese New Year, the authors have chosen to give this special festival practically its own section, with more recipes, projects and stories.

Other festivals covered in Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats are the Cold Foods Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. The book concludes with a very good resource section, including lists of related books, Internet resources and a guide to Chinese pronunciation.

Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats is a super book. Though intended for younger kids, older children and even adults will be delighted by the stories, projects and recipes included. This is a wonderful book to aid in introducing children to the finer points of another culture, or as a guide for parents wanting their offspring to get in touch with their own. | January 2003


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.