Eighty percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February, but luckily February offers an opportunity to reset: the Lunar New Year! Also known as Chinese New Year, or in China, as the Spring Festival, this celebration marks the start of the new lunar calendar and its transition to the next zodiac year. The traditional Chinese zodiac follows a cycle that repeats every twelve years and is ordered according to twelve zoological signs. This year, will celebrate the Year of the Pig, and to mark the festivities (and give you a nudge to get back on track with your reading resolutions!) we’ve put together a list of novels featuring each of the twelve zodiac animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
Traditionally in Chinese culture, rats were seen as a sign of wealth and abundance, and married couples, inspired by their rate of reproduction, used them to pray for fertility. Unfortunately, the rodents’ fruitfulness also led to their prevalence across Europe—the disease they carried, which would eventually become known as the Bubonic Plague. Geraldine Brooks, a master of historical fiction, captures this moment in time through the eyes of a young woman confronting the disease in eighteenth-century England.
Oxen have always been valued in farming history; their tough and hardworking nature lend these positive characteristics to those born in the Year of the Ox. In THE GOOD EARTH, Pearl S. Buck’s classic tale of 1920s rural China, honest and diligent farmers Wang Lung and O-Lan struggle to care for their family and land (cue ox appearance!) amid the turbulence of agricultural life.
Tigers are symbols of courage and adventure and the tigers in the zodiac are also seen as guardians; children often wear tiger designs to protect against evil spirits. The tiger in Téa Obreht’s debut novel escapes from the zoo he is in during a wartime bombing. The tiger befriends a mysterious deaf-mute woman and the two become mythic figures in the village and for generations after.
In a Balkan country mending from war, Natalia, a young doctor, is compelled to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. Searching for clues, she turns to his worn copy of The Jungle Book and the stories he told her of his encounters over the years with “the deathless man.” But most extraordinary of all is the story her grandfather never told her—the legend of the tiger’s wife.
There are a few explanations for why rabbits in the Chinese zodiac represent the moon. One is that the moon is home to the goddess of immortality, Chang’e, whose companion is the Jade Rabbit. Others say the shadows on the moon can reveal themselves to be a rabbit to those who look close enough. Another illusory bunny can be found in CHOCOLAT, the story of a woman whose arrival in a small French village with daughter Anouk and Anouk’s imaginary best friend, Pantoufle the rabbit, reveals both intolerance and passion among the locals.
The trials and triumphs of chocolatier Vianne Rocher unfold in prose as sweet as the described French confections. It doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that the main love interest is played by the swoon-worthy Johnny Depp in the eponymous movie adaption.
Unlike its Western counterpart, which shows dragons to be cruel, greedy, and detached, the Chinese dragon is revered. Those born in the Year of the Dragon are considered great leaders who use their natural strengths to help others. One oft-forgotten fictional dragon seems to bridge these two characterizations: Eustace Scrubb, annoying cousin to the Pevensie children (the four siblings you might remember from THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE). In VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, third in the Chronicles of Narnia series, young Eustace starts off sulky and mean only to have a change of heart when he’s literally transformed into a dragon and realizes the value in assisting his crew.
Snakes may be cunning and self-serving, but the Chinese zodiac also depicts them as a symbol of wisdom. Rudyard Kipling captured this essence in his slithering character Kaa, a hundred-year-old creature whose friendship mentors Mowgli through the Jungle. Starkly different from the various film portrayals, this serpent’s guidance actually keeps Mowgli from harm.
Lively, active, and partial to galloping, the horse in the Chinese calendar is the symbol of freedom and independence. Freedom is exactly what Peter Lake needs in WINTER’S TALE; cornered by a criminal gang who want him dead, an angelic white horse mysteriously appears and saves Peter before leading him through the streets of turn-of-the-century New York City toward his true love.
Goats are typified by a mild nature, and are often shy and sympathetic. Those born in the Year of the Goat are described as enjoying company, but also preferring the sidelines of big groups. This portrait aligns with the psychological phenomenon which inspired Joanna Cannon’s novel, a lovely coming of age story where a close-knit neighborhood reevaluates what it means to belong. Goats, in Cannon’s interpretation, are individuals who “unbelong,” living on the periphery of life and trying to fit in among the “sheep” of their community. It’s only when circumstances call attention to their differences that the “goats and sheep” truly consider who and where they’d really like to be.
Read the full review of THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP.
Unsurpirsingly, monkeys are characterized as playful pranksters who use their sly intelligence for mischief. The titular character in Carl Hiaasen’s novel also channels cleverness into bad behavior, although among a cast of colorful characters including a failed police officer, Bahamian voodoo queen, and hot blooded Midwestern fugitives, can you really blame him for acting out?
I know, I know—hens are not the same as roosters. But a comprehsnive search of many, many bookshelves failed to turn up any rooster-driven stories and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to showcase another charming piece of fowl fiction. This allegorical tale, hailed as the Korean CHARLOTTE’S WEB, follows a frustrated hen who decides she’s no longer content on the farm and decides to break with tradition and escape into the wild.
To be fair, many loyal hounds are portrayed on the page with the same attributes of those born in the Year of the Dog: honesty, faithfulness, smarts, and a strong sense of responsibility. One of my favorites, however, was captured in the “re-bark-able” story of rescue-turned-royal Guy, a beagle whose owner unexpectedly married into royalty and turns him into a beloved puppy prince.
By far one of the most famous, if detested, fictional porkers is the main antagonist of George Orwell’s political allegory: Napoleon the Pig. Although the Chinese zodiac associates the Year of the Pig with good fortune and accommodating personalities, nothing could be further from Napoleon’s Stalin-inspired nature. Revist this classic in the Year of the Pig to find the animal you most relate to, regardless of what year you were born!