Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Happy Year of the Ox! 

In China, each new year is characterized by one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. For 2021, it’s the ox. In this Lunar New Year story time activity, we’ll delve into this zodiac by reading Ruby’s Chinese New Year by Vickie Lee. This wonderful book is a modern interpretation of the traditional Chinese zodiac story, filled with the love of a young girl for her grandmother. (It also shares the classic tale at the end of the book.) 

Next, we’ll expand the story time with a playful early literacy activity designed to build letter-sound knowledge. Your child will learn to isolate the first sound of each animal’s name and match it to the correct letter. 

Chinese Zodiac_01


  • Ruby’s Chinese New Year by Vickie Lee (Alternate: The Great Race by Christopher Corr)
  • Toy animals (or print or draw your own)
  • Paper
  • Markers, pencils, or pens
  • Scissors

Cost: Free, if you get creative on your animal representations! (See Step 2.) If you prefer, you can buy a set of Chinese zodiac toy animals in the $10 range, such as this toy Toob.

Step 1: Read Ruby’s Chinese New Year together. You can most likely find it at your local library or on Hoopla. You can also find videos of it read aloud on YouTube. Then you and your child can look in the back pages to discover which animal is your child’s zodiac sign! It’s always fun to explore each member of your family and the animal associated with the year of their birth.

Chinese Zodiac_02b

Step 2: With your child, gather together toys for each of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. If you don’t have a toy for some of the animals, you can print out pictures online, or draw your own, and then cut them out.

Chinese Zodiac_03

Step 3: Help your child write the first letter of each animal name (or write them yourself) on a piece of paper, and then cut out each letter. Review with your child the sounds that each letter makes.

Chinese Zodiac_05

Step 4: Point to an animal and ask your child to say its name aloud. Have them match the correct letter to the animal. Tip: I go in the order of the Chinese zodiac to reinforce the story of the animals.

Bonus: Once your child has mastered beginning sounds, you can take this further by inviting your child to match the ending sounds. (Just remember that you—or they—will need to write a new set of letters!)

It’s wonderful to share the world of a book by reading to your child, but it’s even better when children are able to take hold of that book and share what they’ve learned with you. Practice with your animals, and don’t be surprised if next time they point out the letters all on their own!

Lunar New Year Letter Activity Pin