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LEGEND OF NIAN. The legend of Nian has many variations. The tale explains the origins of Lunar New Year traditions and why it takes 15 days of preparation to be ready for the new year, also known as the spring festival. In Virginia Loh-Hagan’s Nian, The Chinese New Year Dragon, readers meet Mei, who challenges the fierce dragon Nian, who loves to "eat little boys and girls."

From The Asian Reporter, V34, #2 (February 5, 2024), pages 10 & 16.

A new twist on an old legend

Nian, The Chinese New Year Dragon

By Virginia Loh-Hagan

Illustrations by Timothy Banks

HarperCollins, 2019

Hardcover, 32 pages, $18.99

By Jody Lim

The Asian Reporter

Nian, The Chinese New Year Dragon is a book aimed at students in grades 1 through 3, but all readers will appreciate the efforts of the story’s hero, Mei, as she challenges fierce dragon Nian, who "hides in a mountain under the sea," except during the spring, when Nian comes out to "fill his empty stomach" and especially loves to "eat little boys and girls."

I read the tale to my nephew, a kindergartener, and he thoroughly enjoyed it.

The legend of Nian has many versions. Regardless of the different interpretations, the tale explains the origins of Lunar New Year traditions and why it takes 15 days of preparation to be ready for the new year, also known as the spring festival.

According to author Virginia Loh-Hagan, the Chinese word for "year" is "nian," and a "phrase for celebrating Chinese New Year is Guo Nian," which means "the passing of the beast." In the past, the traditions featured in the legend had the goal of scaring away the beast. In modern times, it means driving out bad spirits to welcome a lucky new year and celebrating the strength of enduring the past year.

With winter ending and spring on the way, the book begins with Mei, a dream, and a visit by a magical warrior.

"Hundreds of years have passed and a new year is coming," says the warrior to Mei. "Nian’s power grows stronger … You must defeat Nian. You must do this in fifteen days or Nian will be free forever. My cane will help you."

Mei questions the warrior: "Why me?"

"You were born in the Year of the Golden Dragon," the warrior replies. "It is your destiny."

"Look at the cane!" my nephew exclaims while pointing at the page.

In the morning, Mei finds the warrior’s magical walking cane by her pillow.

Then Mei’s MaMa yells: "Mei! Wake up! Nian is on the way. We must flee and hide."

As MaMa and the animals hide, Mei remembers the warrior’s cane and runs to get it.

Then Nian appears.

"She heard a terrible roar and smelled a terrible smell," the book says. "… She could see his sharp teeth and claws. She could see his long, slimy tongue."

Mei bangs the cane on a cooking pot and yells, "Nian, go away! You are not wanted here!"

Nian really didn’t like the noise, so Mei had a "wonderfully noisy idea," and tells the villagers to create a bunch of noise — pots, pans, firecrackers, and more — causing Nian to retreat to his mountain under the sea.

For five days, Nian stayed away and the villagers were happy, so happy, in fact, that they gifted a red silk robe to Mei.

Mei was wearing the red robe on the day Nian returned. She threw a lantern at the dragon and covered herself in the red robe, causing Nian to back away in fear.

Our hero thinks of a "wonderfully bright idea" and tells the villagers to "wear your brightest reds and shine your brightest lights!" — lanterns, fires, red banners, and more. Nian again flees back to his mountain under the sea.

On the tenth night, the warrior returns in Mei’s dream with a warning: "Nian is coming back and he wants revenge. Be very careful. Remember, you only have five more days to defeat him."

Mei feels she’d been lucky in the first two encounters with Nian, so she thinks of a "wonderfully tricky idea."

"Mei is very smart!" my nephew interjects, while also fully enjoying the author’s "wonderfully" noisy, bright, and tricky theme.

What is Mei’s tricky idea? Does it involve the magical cane? Is there a dragon dance? Will Nian go away forever? To find out, you’ll have to read Nian, The Chinese New Year Dragon.

Thank you, author Virginia Loh-Hagan and illustrator Timothy Banks, for creating an entertaining Lunar New Year book my nephew absolutely loved and wanted to read over and over.

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