Walk into nearly any Chinese restaurant and you'll see a small crowd gathered around the obligatory Chinese Zodiac poster. And it's not just Asian-Americans peeking at their birth sign to see how closely the personality traits match. Everyone does.
Year of the Rat? You're imaginative, charming and overly critical. Pig? Intellectual, honest and — ulp! — oh so naive.
So why not take those personality traits, thought Oliver Chin, weave a story and build a hip children's picture book around them — not just the rat and the pig, but all 12 animals that frame the traditional Chinese calendar?
"There wasn't anything else out there," says the San Francisco author. "It was a great opportunity to bring these semi-familiar notions into the 21st century, dust them off, take them from the place mat world of Chinese restaurants and put a new spin on it. Make them contemporary and timeless."
Now, the fourth book in his Chinese Zodiac series — "The Year of the Ox" (Immedium, $15.95) — has landed on bookstore shelves and the adorable tale of Olivia, a small calf with big pretensions, is being read in classrooms, libraries and at Lunar New Year celebrations around the Bay.
Of course the big question is, how did a Harvard-trained marketing whiz and casual cartoonist end up penning children's books and, um, what's his sign?
"I'm a Rooster, a go-getter," he says. "I'm the youngest of five kids and most of us were different animals, so we cover half the 12."
Then he laughs. It's unlikely, he concedes, that everyone born in a single year has the same personality. The Zodiac is a memorable way to pass along folklore and legends, and track the passing years, but you shouldn't lose too much sleep over your less admirable traits.
People born in the Year of the Ox — 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985 and 1997 and 2009 — are known for their work ethic, and their patient and taciturn nature. Best not to tell them they're also eccentric, stubborn and bigoted. According to the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, they have fierce tempers, too.
But Chin sees the Chinese Zodiac as a perfect vehicle for passing along his cultural heritage not only to his own sons but children everywhere. And although his resume includes stints at Children's Television Workshop, PC World, and various publishing houses, it was the birth of his first son, Lucas, that reawakened his creative side.
By 2005, Chin and his wife Amy had a second son, Eli, and a fledgling publishing house of their own, devoted to encouraging graphic designers, including many Bay Area artists.
"Our mission has been to create new characters and universes which readers would want more of," he says, "not retell old Chinese folktales or little engines that could. Being a third generation Chinese-American, it was important that the series increased the representation of faces, the interesting cultural themes and make them universally accessible and enjoyable."
Chin has been surfing, so to speak, the leading edge of a new publishing wave. If you'd been looking for a lunar new year book even a few years ago, there wouldn't have been much out there, says Kepler's Angela Kroner, who coordinated youth events at the Menlo Park indie bookstore up until last year.
"We were seeing people coming in and asking every year," she says. "In this day and age a lot of people are really aware of other cultures. Kids are curious."
Unlike other authors, who simply explained the zodiac symbols and personality traits, Chin took a different tack.
"He was really pushing it and bringing a unique vision," says Kroner. "He was taking people from that particular sign and building a story around it. It's great."
Chin teamed with Jeremiah Alcorn, a Birmingham, Alabama artist who favors "the great animated Chuck Jones/Bugs Bunny style," to create "The Year of the Dog" in 2006 — the tale of a puppy who eventually figures out how to be man's best friend.
The following year brought piglet Patricia and Farmer Wu's adventures, then a baby rat, Ralph, in 2008. Now, Olivia the Ox takes center stage.
She's "a small tyke with a big view of herself," says Chin, "she thinks she can help on the farm to a greater degree than her stature might suggest. But she's too small to pull the plow, gets stuck in the mud, trips over various other animals."
No spoilers here, but suffice it to say, that stubborness becomes her strength. And no matter who headlines, the other animals play supporting roles.
"You don't have to wait for the Year of the Monkey to enjoy the story," Chin says, "because every animal shows up every year."
Maybe. But Kroner says, "I'm waiting for the Year of the Snake, because that's my Chinese Zodiac sign. That's what I'm really excited about."
Reach Jackie Burrell at email@example.com.
Lunar New Year
A sampling of family-friendly Lunar New Year celebrations around the Bay.