Today is the first day of the Year of the Dragon, and we are very excited to share with you a Q & A with Dawn Casey, author of The Great Race. Read on to learn about the legend behind the Chinese zodiac, which animals Dawn would pick if she had been the one to create the calendar and more!

Q: What is the Chinese New Year?
A:
Chinese New Year is the most important festival in the Chinese calendar. Chinese communities around the world welcome the New Year with celebrations lasting 15 days. The festival begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, so it is also known as the Spring Festival, and heralds new beginnings and fresh starts.

People prepare by cleaning their homes, sweeping away bad luck and making space for good fortune to enter. Special foods are made, new clothes bought and homes decorated with colourful banners painted with good luck wishes. Celebrations begin on New Year’s Eve. Families and friends come together. Lucky red envelopes are gifted to children and everyone enjoys feasting and firecrackers.

The final day of the New Year festivities is the Lantern Festival. Dragon dances and lion dances parade through the streets. In the evening, as the full moon shines in the sky, the night is lit up with thousands of colourful lanterns.

Q:What inspired you to write The Great Race?
A:
I have always been inspired by ancient myths and legends—their simplicity and power, and the universal truth they speak to our souls. When Tessa asked me to retell the legend of the Chinese zodiac, I was delighted.

Hearing stories of the seasons or festivals, I believe, helps children to ground themselves in the world around them. The story of the Chinese zodiac is particularly satisfying as it draws so much on ancient Chinese wisdom. The twelve animals in the story tell us of the energies we find in the world and in ourselves. It is also a story bubbling with fun for little ones—a cacophony of animals racing to cross a raging river! I love how each animal uses their own unique gifts to find their own way.

Q: What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching the legend of the Chinese zodiac?
A:
It was intriguing to discover the intricacies of the Chinese calendar. It uses the sun and moon and stars as reference points, as well as incorporating the Chinese theory of the ‘five elements’ (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) and the Taoist concepts of yin and yang. Because the ideas are drawn from nature, from living with and learning from the ways of the natural world, I see a lot of wisdom in it.

Q: The Chinese believe that a person’s character is determined by the animal that rules the year they were born. Do you think this is true in your case?
A:
Yes! I was born in the Year of the Hare. I am very drawn to the folklore and symbolism of hares. I love how, in myths from Britain and all over Asia—including China—hares are connected with the mystery and magic of the moon.

According to the Chinese zodiac, hares are peace-loving and home-loving, and value compassion and creativity. For me, this is all true.

Q: If you could pick twelve animals (real or imaginary) for a new calendar, which animals would you choose?
A:
What a lovely question! I live in Britain, and feel deeply connected to our landscape, wildlife and heritage, so I think I’d choose native animals, as well as animals that resonate in our cultural consciousness. I’d choose creatures to embody the spirit of each season, such as a winter bear, hibernating, as a reminder to rest.

I’d include mythical creatures; a joyful Midsummer faery, a changeable September selkie.

Can I include plants? The Celts named each month after different trees. I’d have May-flowers, June elder blossom, August brambles, December holly…

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A:
2012 is an extra special Chinese New Year because it is the Year of the Dragon.

In European fairytales, dragons are monsters to overcome. In contrast, the Chinese dragon is a divine and mystical creature with a benevolent nature. In Chinese tradition, the dragon is the ultimate auspicious animal. All the other creatures in the Chinese zodiac are domestic or wild animals. The dragon is magical.

I feel a little thrill that perhaps, in a Dragon Year, anything is possible…

Happy Chinese New Year!

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