Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan’s Chinese New Year by Kate Waters and Madeline Slovenz-Low, photographs by Martha Cooper.
Scholastic, New York, 1990.
Nonfiction picture book, 32 pages.
Lexile: 540L .
AR Level: 2.9 (worth 0.5 points) .
The is the story of six-year-old Ernie Wan’s first Lion Dance, which he’s been preparing for since he was three. For the Chinese New Year, he will perform on the streets of New York City.
Ernie is one-fifth of a loving family. His father is, according to the dust jacket text, “a kung fu master” so studying kung fu is very important to his family. (I put that portion in quotes not because I disbelieve his qualifications but because I wasn’t sure if that’s how he would describe himself. Often the jacket text isn’t written by the author so it’s difficult to tell just how accurate this might be.)
He and his older sister go to Chinese school as well as practicing kung fu with their father and attending a regular public school. They live in New York’s Chinatown and a page spread is dedicated to all the interesting things they see daily. An aspect of this I loved is that the Wan family are practicing Buddhists. So we see them honoring ancestors at the family altar and this book includes the Buddhist aspects of the Lion Dance, something I haven’t seen included in many other books.
There are also ceremonies for the eye-opening of Ernie’s lion, and the lion entering stores and restaurants is described as a blessing. It was nice to see the religious aspects of this holiday acknowledged, and to have another option for Buddhist picture books.
Being in New York, Ernie and his sister (and possibly their little brother too although that isn’t clear) share a room. That was another part of this I appreciated – many of our children share rooms and sometimes younger children stay in the same room even if they are opposite genders, which is rarely represented in children’s books. The few times I have seen this living situation shown, it’s presented as a choice made out of poverty. But the Wan family are clearly middle or even upper class.
I doubted some of the word choices in this book. The tagline seemed to be “This is the story of the most important day in my life,” and that seems like a lot of burden on a six year old! I’m not denying that this day is very important, but surely there will be other times still to come in his life that rival this one in importance, such as a wedding, the birth of his children, or even his graduation.
Some aspects of this book are dated. When Ernie’s wearing t-shirts, his special New Year clothes, or his dancing clothes, it’s less obvious. But when wearing street clothes or sweatshirts, it’s clear that the setting isn’t the present day. The absence of modern technology might not be noticed until they watch a videotape recording of their practice by gathering around a tiny TV that was probably quite remarkable at the time.
This book has less back matter than the other nonfiction books by Kate Waters, probably because the historical background doesn’t need to be explained as much. There are two pages about the Chinese lunar calendar, one explaining the 12 year cycle, and another titled “Chinese Horoscope” which again shows the datedness of this because the years listed stop in 2012.
Although this book is dated and has some other small flaws, I think it could still be useful for parents and teachers. It covers some aspects of the Lunar New Year that I haven’t yet seen in other books, and the children enjoy seeing pictures of another child celebrating. However, I would not rely on this a a sole source, but would use it together with more recent books like this National Geographic Kids one or videos about modern Lunar New Year celebrations.