Thursday, October 19, 2006

Year of the Dog

Grace Lin is a successful writer and illustrator of many picture books. Her first novel The Year of the Dog is as masterfully crafted as the most exquisite Chinese banquet. With a delicate balance of sweet and tart, smooth, crunchy and tender it is delightful, satisfying and enriching. The story is told by Pacy, whose American name is Grace, a second grade Taiwanese-American girl. She lives with her mother and father and two sisters, with extended family close enough to visit. The handwriting font and charming line drawings give it the feel of a personal journal and make it easy for readers to identify with Pacy. The family celebration of the Chinese New Year and the ups and downs of elementary school make the story appealing to middle grade readers (3 -5).

The heart of this book is the telling of the experiences of racism she encounters in her everyday life. Pacy learns her Chinese culture at home and learns to blend in as an American at school. It seems a bit surprising at first to think such a difficult subject is addressed in a simple book for young readers, but since it is written based on Lin’s real life experiences the shattering truth of the prejudice she encounters is entirely appropriate. She speaks with the innocence and candor of a young girl. She is the only Asian in her school until a new girl joins their class. Pacy feels the loneliness and confusion of being both Chinese and American, the only one of her ethnicity in a crowd, and the frustration of trying to find her unique identity. Pacy, who is called her American name “Grace” at school, is accused by the lunch lady of trying to take two lunches and in this way she discovers there is a new Chinese girl in the school. She happily makes friends with Melody, the new girl, and is able to shrug off the uncomfortable realization that to the adults in her lunchroom they are indistinguishable.

A few chapters later another incident is portrayed. When the class prepares to put on the play The Wizard of Oz Pacy hopes to be chosen as Dorothy. Her Caucasian classmate Becky looks at her in shock.

"You can’t be Dorothy,” she said. “Dorothy’s not Chinese.” 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. All the girls continued singing, but I didn’t hear them. Becky was right. Dorothy wasn’t Chinese. I was SO dumb. How could I have even thought about being Dorothy? I’d never get chosen. It was stupid to even try.

Pacy never tells the teacher or her mother why she is so disappointed when she gets chosen as a Munchkin instead. She doesn’t explain to her mother why she doesn’t want to be seen on stage as the Munchkin who gives Dorothy a gift. She wants to be invisible but can’t articulate to anyone why, because she thinks she is dumb for feeling that way.

Later she attends Taiwanese culture camp in the summer with her family. She tries to make friends with the other Chinese girls in the art room there, but they are just as cruel and punishing in their judgment of her.

“You can’t speak Chinese OR Taiwanese?!?!” the girl said.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know” I mumbled.

“I know why,” one girl said, her nose arching toward the ceiling. “It’s because you’ve been Americanized. My mother says she would never let me become Americanized. She said that when you’re Americanized you don’t have any culture.”

“You’re a Twinkie!” another girl said. “My brother said
Chinese people who are Americanized are Twinkies. Yellow on the outside but
white on the inside!”

The girls cackled and jabbered at each other in Chinese like mockingbirds. I felt like a helpless fish frying in oil, with a red-hot heat burning my face and stinging my eyes. I turned around so they wouldn’t see me cry.

Transracial families and adopted children will certainly see their own experiences of being stuck between two cultures in these portrayals of Grace's dual worlds. The love and strength of her family gives her the chance to heal from these wounds and the hope to go on seeking her way. Grace’s story highlights the values she learns from her family, many given to her as moments of family history as her mother, father, grandfather and aunts and uncles share stories from their childhoods. Her mother’s way of teaching and comforting her daughter is the telling of tales from her childhood, sharing problem solving strategies, humor and togetherness.

In the prologue Lin says of her childhood “life was a constant whirling of East and West that spun the threads of my identity. At the time, I felt these different threads twisted my life into knots. Now I know that the fabric of my life is richer for them.” Read more of her thought in this essay posted on her website. Lin also writes on

This is the book I wished I had when I was younger. Being a bookworm at a young age, eagerly eating up Carolyn Haywood (B is for Betsy) or the Betsy- Tacy books, I was always saddened that I could never see myself, an Asian-American, in those books. The Year of the Dog is for all those girls who haven't been able to see themselves reflected in the books they love and also for those curious to see their lives through a slightly different lens.

Pacy is an eager reader and searches for Chinese characters in books and movies just as Lin says she did as a child. Her favorite classes are art and library. One shining moment of understanding herself and visualizing her future comes as a result of a school project when the art teacher and the librarian team up to introduce the kids to Written and Illustrated by… The National Awards Contest for Students. The children will write and illustrate their own books for this national contest. Grace is enchanted with the idea of writing her own book, but has a hard time thinking of a topic. Then she gets the idea of making a book about a Chinese American girl. She struggles to get past an initial writer’s block by helping her mother in the garden and thinking about the funny, ugly vegetables her mother grows to make a delicious soup. The story gets written and she tells about the long rewriting process and the joy she finds in painting the pictures for the illustrations. She gets an A on the project and has to wait till the next fall to find out she won fourth prize in the national competition. The prize is $400. With delight she realizes she is rich, lucky and has found her talent. She will become a writer and illustrator when she grows up! The book ends with her family and friend’s family celebrating the Chinese New Year again, welcoming in the year of the pig. It is a very satisfying way to round out the story. Low and behold, as an adult she did write a book called The Ugly Vegetables.

I found this book delightful. I enjoyed reading about the Chinese food and traditional customs. I loved seeing how the family nurtured and supported each member. I wept to witness Grace’s harsh treatment as she learned to navigate her way. This is a great book for children and adults loving, raising or working with children in a diverse world. Highly recommended! Grace Lin is also a blogger, by the way. Check her out here.

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