Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

Author: Grace Lin
Title: The Year of the Dog
Illustrator: Grace Lin
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Publication Date: 2006
ISBN: 0-316-06000-3

Pacy’s mother tells her that the Chinese Year of the Dog is a good year for friends, family, and discovering yourself and your talent. Pacy quickly finds a new friend in Melody Ling, another Taiwanese-American. Now she has two good friends, Melody and Becky. But finding out about herself and her talent takes more time. Through stories from her mother and her friendship with Melody, Pacy, also known as Grace Lin, explores her Taiwanese culture and the way other Taiwanese-Americans view their heritage. As the year passes, each of her friends finds their talents, but it wasn’t until the end of the year that Pacy discovers her own, the ability to write and illustrate stories.

Raised in upstate New York, Grace Lin is Taiwanese-American and uses her childhood experiences to create the story The Year of the Dog. Told in first person using the voice of a child, Grace, also known as Pacy by her family, shares her experiences throughout the Year of the Dog as she searches for friends and for her hidden talent; after all, the Year of the Dog is for finding your best friend, “because,” as her mother explains, “dogs are faithful.... The Year of the Dog is also for thinking. Since dogs are also honest and sincere, it’s a good year to find yourself...what you want to do--that kind of thing.”

Pacy shares her everyday experiences from school and from home. The personality of each friend and family member is presented in such as way that the reader feels as if they, too, know the family personally. Some of the stories are funny, bringing to mind episodes of our own childhood. During the Chinese New Year dinner, the fried fish stares at Pacy, “I didn’t like it, so I turned that plate around so it would look at Lissy instead.” They kept turning the plate back and forth until they finally had the fish stare at their younger sister who didn’t notice. Another dinner at her new friend Melody’s house introduced ‘healthy’ Chinese food to Pacy. “Yuck!...How could they eat this?...I just kept pushing the rice from one side of my plate to the other.” How many of us did this when we were younger or even now?

Other stories confront Pacy with her ethnicity in such a way that she is shocked and hurt, like the time her friend Becky tells her that she can’t be Dorothy from Wizard of Oz in the school play. “Dorothy’s not Chinese,” she said. Pacy thinks, “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.” She refuses to try out for the part and begins to think that Chinese people aren’t important. “You never see a Chinese person in the movies or in a play or in a book. No one Chinese is important.” The only book Melody and Pacy find in the school library is “The Seven Chinese Brothers” although the illustration shows another title, Five Chinese Brothers. “Those aren’t real Chinese people.... Your brother doesn’t have a ponytail.” From this discovery comes the seed of an idea. Melody challenges her to write her own book; Pacy remembers the book contest and accepts the challenge.

It isn’t only the White American viewpoint that Pacy has to overcome. Pacy also has to face prejudice within her own Taiwanese-American culture. Pacy and her family go to a Taiwanese-American Convention with Melody’s family. After Melody leaves, her mother encourages her to make new friends; however, when some girls discover that she can’t speak Chinese or Taiwanese, the girls treat her rudely. “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 says. “My brother said Chinese people who are Americanized are Twinkies. Yellow on the outside but white on the inside!” Later Pacy talks 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?” The mother’s answer, “You don’t have to be more one than the other, you’re Chinese-American.” “Or Taiwanese-American,” Pacy adds. “It’s so confusing.”

Pacy shares stories told to her by her family, relating them to the action of the story so that they become part of Pacy’s story, too. Pacy’s mother tells many stories like “How Grandpa Got Rich” since so many of their New Year foods symbolize wealth and “Mom Sleeps in School” because Pacy is so tired and doesn’t want to go to school. “The Paper Piano” is told by her mother to encourage Pacy “to work on your book a little bit every day, if you want it to be good, just like practicing an instrument.” Pacy enjoys telling her own stories, too. “How My Name Changed from Pacy to Grace” is one of Pacy’s own stories that she shares with her new Taiwanese-American friend, Melody when Melody is confused about why Pacy has two names.

The reader gets to share in some of the celebrations, rituals, and customs experienced by Pacy and her family. For the Chinese New Year, a candy tray is filled. “If it’s full of sweet things, it means your year will be full of sweet things.” However, Ki-Ki eats so much of the special Chinese New Year candy... (“I don’t know why. It isn’t real candy like chocolate or lollipops,” writes Pacy.)... that Pacy fills the rest of the tray with M&M’s. (“That’s real candy.”) Her older sister doesn’t believe this to be right, so they take it to their dad. He replies, “We should have both Chinese and American candy for the new year. It’s just like us—Chinese-American.” They start their own variation of a Chinese tradition.

One time Pacy has a crick in her neck and her grandma uses black stones and water to create black ink. She then paints the Chinese symbol for the tiger on one side of Pacy’s neck and a pig on the other. “The tiger should chase the pig and the running will massage your neck and you’re your neck feel better,” Grandma tells her. Pacy is worried that the paint won’t come off. Surprisingly, her neck feels better.

Then there was the Red Egg party for their new cousin, Albert. Not all Chinese babies get Red Egg parties, but when they do, you have to bring red eggs for good luck. When Pacy saw baby Albert, “He looked like a red egg. But it could have been because he was sleeping on all those red envelopes. Relatives kept coming by and slipping those envelopes stuffed with money into the crib..... Lucky Albert! He was already rich.” About the Chinese, Taiwanese, and American mixture in her life, Grace Lin admits in the author’s note, “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.”

Grace Lin adds little drawings in each chapter to illustrate some of the events, much as a child would do in a journal: “How to draw a dog,” “the fish” from the New Year’s dinner, “Mom sleeps in school,” “Lissy with red dye on her nose,” and “Albert’s Banner.” The simple drawings along with the emotions and stories shared in the text allow the reader to believe that a child is telling the story.

The unveiling of Pacy’s talent at the end of the year is a satisfying conclusion to her search; after all, she has shared herself through her stories and pictures throughout the Year of the Dog. After Halloween, Pacy finally receives the wealth and self-discovery that she sought all year. Grace’s book, The Ugly Vegetables, won fourth place in the National Written and Illustrated Awards Contest for Students. She receives $400! “I found myself!” I told everyone. “I’m going to make books when I grow up.” This was a real contest that existed until around 2005 when the company folded. Grace Lin did write the book, The Ugly Vegetables, but, she admits in the author’s note, Melody’s book, Flower Land, is really her book, Dandelion Story. She really won the prize that year for her science fair project. By weaving the threads of her life stories, and variations of these stories, with her simple pictures, Grace Lin has created a beautiful fabric of her childhood, one that leaves the reader wanting more.

Review excerpts:
Booklist starred
(January 1, 2006) “Lin, who is known for her picture books, dots the text with charming ink drawings.... 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, reimaging them through the lens of her own story, and transforming their special qualities into something new for today’s young readers.” (Gr. 3-5)

Horn Book (March/April 2006) “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.”

Kirkus Review (December 15, 2005) “Occasional black-and-white drawings by the author enliven the text. This comfortable first-person story will be a great for Asian-American girls looking to see themselves in their reading, but also for any reader who enjoys stories of friendship and family life.” (8-12)

Publishers Weekly (January 2, 2006) “Lin creates an endearing protagonist, realistically dealing with universal emotions and situations.... Girls everywhere, but especially those in the Asian-American community, will find much to embrace here.” (Ages 8-12)

School Library Journal (March 1, 2006) “At the end of the year, the protagonist has grown substantially. Small, captioned, childlike black-and-white drawings are dotted throughout. This is an enjoyable chapter book with easily identifiable characters.” (Gr. 3-5)

2006 Fall Publisher’s Pick
2006 ALA Children’s Notable
2006 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) Gold Winner
2007-2008 Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee
2007 Nene Awards Recommended List (Hawaii)
2007 Cochecho Readers’ Award List (NH)
2006 NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
2006 Kirkus Best Early Chapter Books
2006 Booklist Editors’ Choice for Middle Readers
2007 Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice
Boston Authors Club Recommended Book
2007-2008 Great Lakes Great Books Award Nominee
2007-2008 North Carolina Children’s Book Award Nominee
2007-2008 West Virginia Children’s Book Award Nominee
2009 Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice Award (OR) Nominee
2009 Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Award (WA, OR, ID) Nominee

If you want to read more about Pacy, read The Year of the Rat: a Novel by Grace Lin (2007). In this story, her best friend moves to California, a new boy comes to her school, and she finds the courage to continue writing and illustrating books.

Explore the Chinese New Year and the Chinese zodiac by reading other fiction and nonfiction books. Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin (2008) is a picture book in which a Chinese American family prepares for and celebrates the Lunar New Year. Story for the Chinese Zodiac by Moniz Chang (1994) is a Chinese/English bilingual story that retells the tale of how the gods named the Chinese zodiac by holding a race for the animals. Cat and Rat: the Legend of the Chinese Zodiac by Ed Young (1995) introduces the Chinese zodiac and the traits for each sign, and it includes a table showing the signs from 1900 through 2007. Celebrate Chinese New Year by Carolyn Otto (2009) provides colorful photos along with information on the history and current practices during the Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year’s Crafts by Karen E. Bledsoe (2005) provide step-by-step instructions for creating ten craft projects for celebrating Chinese New Year. Western and Chinese New Year’s Celebration by Elizabeth A. Dice (2009) provides information on both the Western and Chinese New Year’s celebrations, allowing for discussion comparing the two.

The following websites also provide information on the Chinese New Year and the Chinese zodiac:

Have your students or your own child create and publish their own book as Pacy did in The Year of the Dog. Several websites provide information on student publishing. Some of them are free; some charge a small fee. Several of these companies also offer writing contests once a year.


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