Precious Bonds in Chinese Picture Books

By Kelly Zhang

Each of us has likely experienced a special bond in our lives, be it with a family member, a friend, a pet animal, a significant place, or a community we identify with. These powerful bonds can help us weather the ups and downs of life and empower us to be the best version of ourselves.

I want to share three translated Chinese picture books that explore the beautiful, unique bonds that people develop with one another and with their surrounding world. I hope readers young and old will be delighted and comforted by these stories, where the language of love is universal and the deep emotional bonds between the characters are strong enough to bridge the barriers of time, place, species, and circumstances. 

A New Year’s Reunion

Written by YU Liqiong
Illustrated by ZHU Chengliang
Translator uncredited
Translated from Simplified Chinese [China]
Published by Candlewick Press  

Sweet little girl Maomao lives with her mother in a small village-town in China, while her father—a migrant construction worker—toils all year round in faraway cities. When Papa finally returns home for Chinese New Year, Maomao is very shy and apprehensive around him, at first. However, over the next few days, the father and daughter pair quickly bond over a range of fun holiday activities, including making sticky rice balls, visiting friends and relatives, doing house repairs, and watching the dragon dance from their rooftop. When it’s time for Papa to leave again, a tearful Maomao gifts him her treasured coin, sending him good fortune for the coming year. 

This book has received great international acclaim since its publication, including being named the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2011. With a color palette dominated by bright red, earthy gold and rich black, the vibrant gouache paintings effectively evoke the joyous festive atmosphere of Chinese New Year. The loving interactions between Maomao and her family, along with their daily joys and pains, will tug at every reader’s heartstrings. 

For Chinese people, the Lunar New Year (aka Spring Festival) is the most significant holiday of the year. It symbolizes family reunion, interpersonal reconciliation, and communal celebration. While the cultural elements of the story will resonate particularly strongly with the Chinese and Asian diaspora, the universal message about the power of the family bond will appeal to readers all over the world.

The Moose of Ewenki

Written by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane
Illustrated by Jiu Er
Translated by Helen Mixter
Translated from Simplified Chinese [China]
Published by Greystone Kids 

When the aging Ewenki hunter-herder Gree Shrek accidentally kills a mother moose, he adopts the orphaned calf and raises him in a forest camp alongside his reindeer herd. As the playful little moose tries to adapt to his new life at the camp, he can’t help getting into all kinds of hilarious trouble. Over time, the hunter and the moose forge a strong emotional connection like that between a father and son. When Gree Shrek accidentally injures his ankle and is forced to leave his camp to recover in a village at the base of the mountain, little moose tags along. Upon arriving at the human village, the moose begins to encounter threats he has never experienced in the wild (ferocious hunting dogs and human poachers… to name a couple). The story comes to a poignant end when the increasingly frail Gree Shrek decides to release the moose back into the forest to safeguard him from further danger.

The gorgeous earth-toned illustrations transport readers into a lush, magnificent primal land where wild animals and humans have co-existed in harmony for millenia. The ethnic Ewenks are a tribe of semi-nomadic hunter-herders indigenous to northern China and parts of Russia. Today, their traditional way of life is rapidly disappearing due to destruction of natural ecosystems by climate change, illegal poaching, industrialization, and urban migration.

This bittersweet ecological tale explores the special bond that blossoms between a human and an animal, while also reminding us of the fragile beauty of nature and the interdependence of all living things. The book has been translated into more than 12 languages and collected many awards and accolades along the way, including the 2020 IBBY Honour, Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year, Junior Library Guide Selection, and the Aesop Accolade. 


Written and Illustrated by YU Hongcheng
Translated by China Children’s Press & Publication Group
Translated from Simplified Chinese [China]
Published by Reycraft Books [US]

What does it take to put a bowl of delicious rice on the table? In this award-winning nonfiction picture book, we follow an ethnic Hani farming community in southwestern China as they cultivate rice on traditional mountaintop terraces through the four seasons of the year. 

The meticulously detailed watercolor illustrations are truly a feast for the eyes. One of the most stunning and memorable pages in the book is the final harvest banquet scene, where villagers of all ages gather around a long table filled with delectable homemade dishes, their faces glowing with joy as they sing, chat, and share a meal together. This is a most beautiful celebration of the connection between farmers and their land, and of the communal love that brings people together. 

The book paints a vivid, realistic portrait of the charming rustic life and cultural traditions of the Hani people. By observing the process of plowing, seeding, transplanting, and harvesting, readers learn about the lifecycle of the rice plant and gain a deeper understanding for the time, patience, and collaborative work that goes into ensuring a good harvest. 

Humans may speak different languages, live in geographically diverse locales, and enjoy distinct ways of life, but there is a certain universality to our feelings, experiences, desires, and relationships that allow us to empathize and connect with one another on a deep emotional level. 

Translated books serve both as a bridge to understanding other cultures and lived experiences, and as a mirror that reflects the common qualities that bind and define us as humans. In a world that feels increasingly hostile, divided, and isolating, it has never been more important for us to learn to embrace others around us and to build connections through kindness and love.

Meet Kelly Zhang

Kelly Zhang is a first-generation Chinese immigrant, bilingual children’s book author, and emerging literary translator based in Ottawa, Canada. Her debut English picture book, TAKE ME TO LAOLAO, is forthcoming from Quill Tree/HarperCollins in 2024. This lyrical tale inspired by Chinese poetry/mythology explores the special bond between a girl and her laolao (grandma). Kelly translates prose and poetry between Chinese and English, with a special focus on contemporary children’s literature originating from mainland China and the Chinese diaspora. She is addicted to spicy foods and is guilty of trying to sneak Sichuan peppercorns, dry chili flakes, and Sriracha sauce into every dish she makes.

You can find her on Twitter: @KellyZhang_YL