Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

Lin, Grace. 2006. The Year of the Dog Book Cover. Book cover designed by  Sano Fujii. From

Lin, Grace. 2006. THE YEAR OF THE DOG. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0316060004

Young Chinese/Taiwanese-American, Pacy is excited to usher in a new year on Chinese New Year: The Year of the Dog. Her family tells her it’s a good year to “find yourself,” but Pacy is nervous; what if she can’t find herself in time? Luckily for Pacy, a lot can happen in just one year. She makes a new best friend, learns more about Chinese/Taiwanese-American culture, makes her stage debut in the school play, enters the science fair, and writes and illustrates her first book. When Chinese New Year arrives Pacy decides that the Year of the Dog had been a great year.

This semi-autobiographical book covers one year in Pacy’s life and is divided into twenty-nine very short chapters. Many of the chapters contain stories about Pacy’s relatives told by Pacy’s mother. These stories are also short and are printed in italtics. Lin’s simple and cheerful black and white illustrations are used as chapter headings and also incorporated into the text. The illustrations are presented as though Pacy has drawn them and they depict important people and things in her life, from the electric rice cooker to pictures of her friends. Illustrations and text have a humorous undertone that keeps even serious subjects from slowing the momentum of the story.

Through the episodic chapters Pacy not only discovers her talent, writing and illustrating books, but she also discovers her wonderful, if contradictory, Chinese/Taiwanese-American culture. Lin addresses Pacy’s dual cultures in a way that insider children will identify with and outsider children will understand. For instance, after being teased for being a “Twinkie” Pacy complains to her mother, “It’s not fair. To Americans, I’m too Chinese, and to Chinese people, I’m too American. So which one am I supposed to be?” (p. 105).

Pacy’s struggle to understand her culture is emphasized by the lack of other Asian-Americans in the all-White upstate New York community. Pacy, known as Grace at school, is the only Asian-American in her class until Melody Ling, who is also Chinese-American arrives and the two quickly become best friends. This is illustrated when Pacy’s good friend Becky tells her matter-of-factly that she cannot play Dorothy in the school play of The Wizard of Oz because Dorothy is not Chinese. Pacy is shocked, “Suddenly, the world went silent. Like a melting icicle, my dream of being Dorothy fell and shattered on the ground. I felt like a dirty puddle after the rain…Becky was right. Dorothy wasn’t Chinese. I was SO dumb” (p. 70).

Chinese-American holidays and traditions, as well as the foods eaten at these times, are the most prevalent cultural markers. The importance of food in Chinese/Taiwanese-American culture is emphasized. For instance, when Pacy visits her family for her cousin Albert’s Red Egg Party she is confused because people keep asking her, “Ja-ba, bei?” Pacy knows this means “Have you eaten yet?” in Taiwanese, but she can’t understand why they ask her this while she’s eating. Finally, her mother explains that it’s also a saying that means, “How are you doing?” and Uncle Leo says, “It’s because food is so important to us…Everything is about food” (p. 40-42).

Lin confronts Chinese-American stereotypes throughout the story. For instance, when Pacy is trying to decide on a topic for her book she visits the library to see if there are any Chinese people in the books. The only book she finds is The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Hutchet Bishop. She looks at the pictures and says to Melody, “Those aren’t real Chinese people, though…Your brother doesn’t have a ponytail” (p. 71).

Although the story focuses on an Asian-American family Pacy’s worries are universal and include being different from her classmates, whether a boy likes her or not, and stage fright. Other themes in this book include friendship, family, and taking pride in your cultural heritage. These topics are handled in a realistic manner with lots of humor and love.  

The book concludes with an author’s note that includes information on the autobiographical aspects of the story. Lin notes that her favorite books growing up were about “normal families without unicorns or fairy princesses.” She saw her life friends and neighborhood reflected in those books, but no Chinese-Americans, so she wrote this book to fill that gap.

Best Books For Children: Preschool-Grade 6 – 9th Edition
Booklist Editors Choice 2006
Bulletin Of The Center For Children's Books-Recommended Titles

Review in PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "Lin creates an endearing protagonist, realistically dealing with universal emotions and situations…The book's inviting design suggests a journal, and features childlike spot illustrations and a typeface with a hand-lettered quality. Girls everywhere, but especially those in the Asian-American community, will find much to embrace here."

Review in BOOKLIST: "Most of the chapters are bolstered by anecdotes from Grace's parents, which connect Grace (and the reader) to her Taiwanese heritage. Lin does a remarkable job capturing the soul and the spirit of books like those of Hayward or Maud Hart Lovelace, reimagining them through the lens of her own story, and transforming their special qualities into something new for today's young readers."

Review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: "Elementary school readers will enjoy the familiar details of school life and the less familiar but deliciously described Chinese holiday meals…This comfortable first-person story will be a treat for Asian-American girls looking to see themselves in their reading, but also for any reader who enjoys stories of friendship and family life."

Review in HORN BOOK: "With a light touch, Lin offers both authentic Taiwanese-American and universal childhood experiences, told from a genuine child perspective. The story, interwoven with several family anecdotes, is entertaining and often illuminating. Appealing, childlike decorative line drawings add a delightful flavor to a gentle tale full of humor."

*Readers may notice that the book Pacy writes in THE YEAR OF THE DOG is based on a picture book by Lin. Read the picture book and discuss different types of vegetables eaten in different countries. Bring in photographs of these vegetables or if possible bring in the real foods for the kids to taste.
Lin, Grace. 2001. THE UGLY VEGETABLES. ISBN 978-0606226288

*Picture books written and/or illustrated by Grace Lin that celebrate Chinese-American culture:
Lin, Grace. 2001. DIM SUM FOR EVERYONE! ISBN 978-0375810824
Tucker, Kathy. 2003. THE SEVEN CHINESE SISTERS. ISBN 978-0807573105
Lin, Grace. 2004. KITE FLYING. ISBN 9780756947897
Lin, Grace. 2006. FORTUNE COOKIE FORTUNES. ISBN 978-0756977672
Lin, Grace. 2008. BRINGING IN THE NEW YEAR. ISBN 978-0375937453

*Other middle grade books by Grace Lin:
Lin, Grace. 2009. WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON. ISBN 978-0316114271
Lin, Grace. 2012. STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY. ISBN 978-0316125956

*More books about Pacy and her family:
Lin, Grace. 2009. THE YEAR OF THE RAT. ISBN 978-0316033619
Lin, Grace. 2012. DUMPLING DAYS. ISBN 978-0316125901

*Check out Grace Lin’s website for activity ideas and more insight into the inspiration behind the book. Kids will especially love to see the many photographs of Lin as a young girl:

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