(This is also always the awkward day when my students, realizing that they do not know the year their parents were born, start shouting out their parents' ages to try and figure out their zodiac sign. More information than I needed!)
There are many great picture book versions available that tell stories about how the Chinese zodiac came to be. This post reviews several of my favorites and includes the worksheet that I give my students to calculate their zodiac animal.
If you are interested in other books about Chinese New Year, check out the post A Chinese Twist on Favorite Tales for several Chinese New Year stories, as well as other Chinese versions of familiar fairy tales.
The Race for the Chinese ZodiacOne common story for the origins and order of the animals in the Chinese Zodiac involves a race. Each of these picture books offers their own take on this traditional tale.
Cat and Rat: the legend of the Chinese Zodiac (1995) by Ed Young. This book opens with an author's note about the history and mythology of the Chinese zodiac, along with a listing of the animals, years, and their characteristics. In this version of the story, the Jade Emperor has declared a race as the deciding factor for zodiac inclusion. Best friends Cat and Rat hatch a plan together, but when Cat falls short of qualifying for the final 12, it explains why cats and rats today are enemies. The dark and loose illustrations for this book make it more difficult to read aloud to a large group but perfect for cuddling up and reading close.
Story of the Chinese Zodiac (1994) retold by Monica Chang, illustrated by Arthur Lee, and translated into Vietnamese by Nguyen Ngoc Ngan. This charming version of the tale featured three-dimensional cut paper animals. I especially love that this a bilingual book with both English and Vietnamese versions. There is also a Chinese/English version.
The Race for the Chinese Zodiac (2010) retold by Gabrielle Wang and illustrated by Sally Rippin. This version of the race story works well for read aloud - brief text and large, ink-outlined illustrations of the animals. The book ends with a brief description of each animal's characteristics and the years.
The Great Race: the story of the Chinese zodiac (2006) retold by Dawn Casey and illustrated by Anne Wilson. This similarly quick retelling of the race tale has bright, cheerful illustrations. In additional to information about the Chinese calendar and the zodiac animals, there is an additional page about other important Chinese holidays including New Year, the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Moon Festival.
The Animals of the Chinese Zodiac (1998) retold by Susan Whitfield and illustrated by Philippa-Alys Browne. This rather lengthy retelling of the race story placed Buddha in the role of Jade Emperor and spends a great deal of time with the beginning, introducing the animals as the various apsaras visit them. There is a detailed note at the end about the origins of the zodiac, as well as a long paragraph about each animal's qualities and the associated years.
The Cat's Tale: why the years are named for animals (2008) by Doris Orgel and illustrated by Meilo So. This final take on the race story gives a different point-of-view, as the story-within-the-story is the cat relating her version of the race event. The frame story is also an important one about family and misunderstandings.
Other Stories from the Chinese Zodiac
The Rooster's Antlers: a story of the Chinese Zodiac (1999) written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by YongSheng Xuan. My students are a big fan of Eric Kimmel's Anansi stories, so they are always excited when they see the cover of this book. This is one of my favorite read alouds about the Chinese zodiac, especially for the ridiculous antics of the scheming centipede. Proud Rooster allows Dragon to borrow his antlers for "as long as he needs them," only to become suddenly self-conscious about lacking them when the Jade Emperor comes to choose the animals for the zodiac. This book also offers a bit of a pourquoi tale for why Roosters crow and chase centipedes. It also includes a two-page spread of the animals and the years and personality characteristics.
Why Rat Comes First: a story of the Chinese Zodiac (1991) retold by Clara Yen and illustrated by Hideo C. Yoshida. In this version of the tale, based on one modified by the author's father, the Jade Emperor invites the animals up to his palace but then cannot decide between Ox or Rat for the first year. He decides to allow the children of Earth to choose the winner. The book includes the years for the twelve animals but not their characteristics.
The Dragon's Tale and Other Animal Fables of the Chinese Zodiac (1996) retold and illustrated by Demi. Finally, this book presents a different take on the zodiac tales. Rather than explaining how the animals were chosen, this book includes twelve separate fables featuring each of the animals. Each fable ends with a short epigraph that restates the moral lesson. This could be a great addition to a lesson on fable or Aesop or for studying aphorisms. (An aside, this book contains the most fascinating note on the illustrations I have ever read. I am still not sure if it is factual or sarcastic.)
Here is the worksheet that I share with my students after we read about the Chinese Zodiac. I usually also include a copy of the characteristics of the different animals from whichever book we share.
|Right-click to save. Prints at 8.5 x 11"|
Do you have a favorite Chinese zodiac story that I have missed? Please share in the comments below!