Lin sprinkles her stories about Pacy's school year, adjustment to losing her best friend due to a family move, and dealing with racism from her friends with little stories from her parent's growing up in Taiwan. She learns that the Chinese zodiac goes in a 12 year cycle with the year of the rat coming first because the animals had a race and the rat came in first by his cleverness. Thus the year of the rat is always counted as the first in a new cycle, and symbolizes a year of changes. Pacy starts out hopeful that her changes will be good ones.
She has to deal with the discomfort of realizing her friends are mistreating the new kid, a boy who has moved from Taiwan. His name is Dun-Wei but they call him "Dumb Way". Pacy doesn't want to be considered weird like him so she tries to distance herself from friendship with him even though her mother is kind to him and his mother. She understands what it is like to be an immigrant and she tries to make her daughter understand by telling them stories of her own adjustment. One time she was trying to buy the best meat at the best price in the grocery store and she bought canned cat food because she couldn't read the label.
Pacy feels sorry for Dun Wei but she doesn't want to be matched with him when her friends Becky and Charlotte play the match-up game, imagining who would make cute couples in their school.
"Suddenly, I felt like a flower wilting. Was it true? Was the only boy I'd ever be a cute couple with Dun-Wei? Would nobody else ever like me because I was Chinese? And I wasn't even really Chinese either! It wasn't fair! I felt angry - angry at Charlotte for saying it, and angry at Dun-Wei for being fresh off the boat, and angry at myself because I was Taiwanese."
Towards the end of the book Pacy finally stands up to Becky and tells her that she thinks it's mean to call him "Dumb Way".
"When I looked up, I saw Becky looking at me with her head cocked like a surprised pigeon. Slowly, she nodded.
"You're right," she said. "It is mean. I won't do it anymore."
"Thanks," I said, and it was as if the ice in my stomach had suddenly melted away.
I love that this friendly, engaging story has the depth to show a regular kid dealing with every day meanness and racism to find a satisfying, peaceful result. So often kids are left alone to process the bullying they encounter. Here's a story where a girl finds a way to stand up to it and her so-called friends grow beyond their pettiness to be better friends. Yay!
Pacy's family goes to her cousin's wedding and Pacy is very excited. She's disappointed when her little sister gets to be a flower girl and her older sister gets a brand new beautiful dress. Pacy has to wear Lissy's old hand me down dress. I can so relate to this! I am in the middle of two sisters and this scene could almost be written for me (except I'm not Chinese):
"I didn't like my dress. It was bright green, the color of steamed broccoli, with gold dragons all over it. It was Lissy's old dress that she grew out of. She had picked it for the dragons especially, but I thought dragons should be on boys' clothes, not a girl's dress. And I didn't think it was fair that I was the only one that had to wear an old dress to the wedding.
"My dress is old, too," Mom said, when I complained. Her dress was green-blue silk.
"That's not the same, " I said. "Yours doesn't count."
"Why not?" Mom asked, laughing.
"Because," I said, "You're Mom!"
I like how Grace always relates things to food. Her descriptions are either really yummy scents and visions or repulsive things you wouldn't want to get near like broccoli. A September chapter starts, "All too soon, like a cherry Popsicle on a hot day, the summer melted away." The voice in Lin's writing is so perfectly tuned to a child's perspective with the added depth of perspective over time. These books are highly recommended.
At Grace Lin's blog, she often talks about her books and her writing process.
A Year of Reading
Into the Wardrobe
100 Scope Notes
A Fuse # 8 Production
Interview with Grace Lin at Jama Rattigan's
May is Asian / Pacific American Heritage Month. Read about other books by or about Asian Americans at Fusion Stories and in these book lists:
Lee & Low books
New York Public Library "On-Lion"
Wild Rose Reader