Three Picture Books for the Year of the Horse

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Galloping into 2014: Three Picture Books for the Year of the Horse

As the Year of the Water Snake slithers away, the Lucky Chinese Year of the Wood Horse comes galloping in with the promise of victories, adventure, travel, fiery energy, decisive action, good fortune, and free-spirited independence. In searching for books to coincide with the marking of the new year, I discovered these three beautiful picture books that portray ancient China through folktale and fantasy and feature magnificent, powerful horses.

The Race for the Chinese Zodiac

The Race for the Chinese Zodiac comes to us by way of Australia, where it was first published in 2011. Candlewick released it here in the states this past November, perfectly timed for the lead up to Chinese New Year. Author Gabrielle Wang retells the ancient story of the race to become one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac. When the Jade Emperor promises to name a year after the first twelve winners to cross the river, thirteen different animals accept the challenge. Each chooses their own method of crossing the river from swimming and flying to raft-building and log-floating. And each reveals their personality traits through competitive spirit, from being kind and supportive to selfish and deceitful.  The easy pacing and large print make for a good story time. And illustrations reminiscent of ancient China give the book visual appeal. Illustrator Sally Rippin used traditional Chinese ink on watercolor paper and also created linocut “chops,” or stamps, showing the Chinese character for each animal. Designer Regine Abos digitally dropped in the texture and color behind Rippin’s hand rendered illustrations to create a modernized vintage look.  Includes additional annotations on the zodiac years and symbols.

  • The Race for the Chinese Zodiac written by Gabrielle Wang, illustrated by Sally Rippin, with design by Regine Abos. Published by Candlewick, 2013. ISBN: 978-0763667788

The Magic Horse of Han Gan

The Magic Horse of Han Gan begins with a young artist whose family cannot afford to buy him paints and brushes. But his fate changes when a well-known painter sees the boy drawing horses in the sand, and the boy is invited to use the painter’s art supplies anytime. Han Gan returns to the painter’s studio and draws only one subject – horses. Later, while attending the Academy of Art, he is asked why, in his pictures, the horses are always tethered. Han Gan explains that his horses are so real they might jump right off the paper. Which is indeed what happens when a great warrior approaches Han Gan about drawing a powerful horse for riding in battle.  Frustrated by his attempt at drawing such a magnificent horse, Han Gan throws the picture into the fire, and magically, a horse springs from the flames and rides off with the warrior on its back. The horse is invincible in battle, and needs neither food nor drink. But when feelings of remorse arise, the horse leaps magically out of the real world. A lovely story not only about the real Han Gan, an accomplished Chinese painter who lived 1,200 years ago and who painted magnificent horses, but also about war and peace. Chen Jiang Hong has done a remarkable job of staying authentic to Han Gan’s original artwork by using the same technique of painting directly onto silk, and the same muted hues. Gorgeous spreads show horses galloping across the pages.

  • The Magic Horse of Han Gan written and illustrated by Chen Jiang Hong, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick. Published by Enchanted Lion Books, 2006. ISBN: 978-1592700639

The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folktale

The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folktale is master children’s book author and illustrator Ed Young’s version of an ancient Chinese proverb and story. Told in spare, simple language and elegant artwork, Young weaves a morally-satisfying tale of a man, his son, and a horse. When Sai loses his horse, his friends and neighbors comfort him, but Sai disagrees with their sympathy, and insists that this may not be so bad after all. And behold he is right, for the horse returns with a mare. When his neighbors congratulate him, Sai does not share in their celebration, but remarks that it may not be so good. And again he is right, for the mare throws his son and injures him. When friends and neighbors come to comfort Sai, he tells them this may be a good thing and he is right. The story continues in the same pattern, showing the twists and turns of fate and fortune, and the harmony Sai maintains through it all, by simply going with the flow and accepting all outcomes. A great lesson on life changes with a touch of humor. The delicate art style of collage with pastel and watercolor are striking. Chinese calligraphy at the beginning of the book tells the original story, which Young adapted in this illustrated version.


Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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