Sam and the Lucky Money

By Karen Chinn
Illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright, Ying-Hwa Hu


Sam can hardly wait to go shopping with his mom. It’s Chinese New Year’s day and his grandparents have given him the traditional gift of lucky money – red envelopes called leisees (lay-sees). This year Sam is finally old enough to spend it any way he chooses. Best of all, he gets to spend his lucky money in his favorite place – Chinatown! 

But when Sam realizes that his grandparents’ gift is not enough to get the things he wants, his excitement turns to disappointment. Even though his mother reminds him that he should appreciate the gift, Sam is not convinced – until a surprise encounter with a stranger. 

With vivid watercolor paintings that celebrate the sights and sounds of festive Chinatown streets, Sam And The Lucky Money tells the affecting story of a child who discovers that sometimes the best gifts come from the heart. 


“gung hay fat choy” 

That means “I wish you a prosperous New Year” in the Cantonese dialect of Chinese. The Chinese New Year is a time of much celebration that marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of spring. Because it is based on the lunar calendar, it does not take place on the exact same day every year. It is a time when family and friends reunite to usher in the New Year and to bring closure to the old, a time to garner good luck for the upcoming year. 

Many preparations are made for the celebration. A thorough housecleaning is undergone to flush out the misfortunes of the past and to welcome the New Year. Red strips of paper expressing propitious wishes are hung for good luck. Firecrackers are shot, in part to ward off evil spirits. Debts are finalized. New clothes are purchased as are gifts for family members and friends. A feast, usually consisting of such foods as dumplings, fish, and cake, is prepared for the New Year’s Eve dinner. 

On New Year’s day, people rest, exchange presents, enjoy friends and families and various activities. One of the gifts that children receive from grandparents and older generations are money-filled red envelopes called leisees, that are usually decorated with symbols of luck (the color red itself being an example). Whereas a feast takes place the prior evening, on New Year’s day, a fast of sorts takes place to accommodate a self-purification as well as to allow rest – namely, no meat is eaten nor is lard used for cooking. No cleaning is done lest amassed good luck be swept away. Doors are closed to seal-in accumulated good luck and keep bad spirits out; sharp objects are avoided lest good luck be severed. 

One of the activities that takes place during this celebration is the lion dance, a dance that is performed to celebrate propitious occasions. It is a study in martial arts movements and hand-eye coordination and a rigorously exercised dance, especially considering that the papier-mâché lion’s head can weigh from 15 to 20 pounds. Businesses invite passing lions into stores to chew and spit out a head of lettuce and reward the lion, or rather the dancers in the lion, with a tip contained in a red envelope. 

Before Reading

Prereading Focus Questions Before students read the story, you might want them to discuss one of the following questions as a motivation for reading.

  1. What do you notice about the cover?
  2. Look at the title. Guess what the story is about.
  3. Do you know anything about Chinese New Year and its traditions/customs? How do you spend Chinese New Year?
  4. What kind of gifts do you like to receive? If you receive money, how do you like to spend it?
  5. How do you think Sam will spend his lucky money?

After Reading

Discussion Questions

After reading the book, use these questions to generate discussion and expand students’ understanding and comprehension. Encourage students to refer back to the text as needed. 

  1. What gift did Sam receive? Why was he especially excited about receiving this gift this year?
  2. What surprise encounters did Sam have in Chinatown?
  3. What is your conception of homeless people? Describe the homeless man in this story. Why couldn’t Sam stop thinking about him?
  4. By the end of the story, Sam says he knows that he is the lucky one. What made him lucky? Why did he give his leisees to the homeless man?
  5. What do you learn about Sam? How does he change and develop throughout the story? As a class, create a character web for Sam.
  6. Do you think that Sam’s family approved of the way Sam spent his lucky money? Do you think it is important to get the gift giver’s approval on how a gift is used?


Ask the students to write down the words they do not know in their vocabulary notebooks, to study their definitions, and to use them in sentences. (If someone in the class reads Chinese characters, ask them to translate them for the class.) 

Reader’s Response Journal

To promote active reading, you might want to have students keep a reader’s response journal. The journal will help students personalize what they are reading. 

  1. Sam made an important decision by himself. What kinds of important decisions have you had to make by yourself? Do you like making decisions? Do you like getting advice? Who do you go to for advice?
  2. What do you think of Sam’s reaction to the homeless man? Has this story affected your view of the homeless? How?
  3. Do you come from a bilingual home? Do you see this as an advantage or disadvantage in your life? When Sam went to the bakery, the woman who worked there spoke to him in Chinese and he could not understand her. What expectations do people have of you, based on the way that you look or where you live?
  4. When Sam’s mom gave the homeless man a quarter, why did the man, according to Sam, “act like (the quarter) was a million bucks?” What things make you feel grateful?

ELL/ESL Teaching Strategies

These strategies might be helpful to use with students who are English language learners or who are learning to speak English as a second language.

  1. Before reading, lead a thorough discussion of the book’s illustrations. Highlight words that match the pictures.
  2. Build background information on Chinese New Year by asking students what they know about celebrations. Illustrate with comparative webs from the information generated. 

Chinese New Year 

  1. While reading the story, the teacher can use different character voices and pantomime actions to bring the story to life. Pause periodically and allow students to ask questions to check comprehension. (It may also be helpful for the teacher to preview the story by telling it in the students’ native language.)

Other Writing Activities

You may wish to have students participate in one or more of the following writing activities. Set aside time for students to share and discuss their work. 

  1. Describe a New Year’s celebration that you spent with your family. What kind of activities took place and how did you participate?
  2. Do you think people have an obligation to help others in the community, including homeless people? Why or why not? Are there homeless people in your neighborhood? Should you help? If so, how?
  3. What is the best gift that you have ever been given?
  4. Write endings to go with the different items Sam could have bought: what do you envision happening if he had bought the basketball? The cakes?
  5. After discussion, imagine and write down an account of a day in the life of the homeless man Sam encountered.

Interdisciplinary Activities

To help students integrate their reading experiences with other curriculum areas, you might try some of the following activities. 

Social Studies

  1. Learn more about the different traditions for Chinese New Year. If possible, display leisees, watch a lion dance (they are available on video), and offer some of the customary cuisine.
  2. Invite someone from a homeless organization to the class to present the services they give to the homeless and how the class can get involved. (Generate questions for the guest beforehand with the students.)
  3. Learn about the history of Chinese Americans. When did they first immigrate to the U.S.? What were the reasons they left their homeland? What cities did the Chinese settle in? What were the origins of Chinatowns?


Give catalogs, supermarket pamphlets, and other similar materials to students. Set a common theme, e.g., gifts or a family meal, and ask the students to spend a certain amount of (imaginary) money for the items necessary. Ask them to compare costs of different items, to add up the amounts, and factor in discounts when appropriate. 


  1. What are different materials that keep people warm? How are they made? Where do they come from?
  2. The Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar as opposed to the solar calendar. Explain the difference. Show the students how the sun, moon, and earth move.


  1. Make red envelopes (leisees), a traditional Chinese New Year gift for children. Trace the pattern below onto a red piece of paper and cut it out. Follow instructions for pasting and folding. Students can draw symbols of luck such as a fish (a good harvest), two peaches (a long life), coins (good fortune), and bamboo leaves (peace)


How To

Fish, Peach

Coin, Leaves 2. Make a Dragon Mobile, which imitates the movement of the Dragon Dance. Using the illustration below, students color and cut out along the heavy, dark lines. Glue tongue depressor behind dragon’s head (at right angle). Wave it in the air and see how it moves up and down.


  1. Make a Chinese New Year Sign. Using the illustration below, use a paintbrush to paint Chinese characters in gold paint. Then cut out circles and paste on 4 squares of red construction paper. See the illustration below on how to punch holes and use 3” pieces of red yarn to tie squares accordingly.

characters 1characters



Read the story aloud, pausing at significant moments, i.e., when Sam meets the stranger or when Sam discovers he doesn’t have enough money for the basketball. At these points, discuss the characters in the story along with such aspects as: what they want, what thoughts might be going through their heads, what (if any) obstacle exists, and how they are resolving the conflict. 

About the Author Karen Chinn received a bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Washington. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband and their daughter. This is her first picture book. 

About the Illustrator Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu have been illustrating books together since 1989. Other books illustrated by the couple for Lee & Low are Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree and The Legend of Freedom Hill. They live in New York City with their son and daughter.


About This Title

Guided Reading:




Interest Level:

Grades K - 3

Reading Level:

Grades 3 - 4


Sharing & Giving, Home, Holidays/Traditions, Friendship, Families, Childhood Experiences and Memories, Asian/Asian American Interest, Empathy/Compassion


Asian/Asian American English Collection Grades 3-5, English Fiction Grades 3-6, Fluent Dual Language , Fluent English, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6, Realistic Fiction Grades 3-5, Bilingual English/Spanish and Dual Language Books , Chinese Culture Collection, RITELL PreK-2 Collection, Social and Emotional Learning Collection, Realistic Fiction Collection Grades PreK-2, Kindness and Compassion Collection, Dual Language Collection English and Spanish, Dual Language Levels N-Z Collection, EmbraceRace Webinar: Books That Encourage Inclusivity and Empathy, English Guided Reading Level N, Social and Emotional Learning Collection, Empathy Collection

Asian American Collection English 6PK

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