In the author's note for The Year of the Dog, Grace Lin mentions that one of her favorite books as a child was Carolyn Haywood's
B is for Betsy, which was a real life, real girl kind of story that took place at home, in school and in the neighborhood. Written in 1939, the characters came from "normal families and ate dinner and waited for the bus. They were normal families without unicorns or fairy princesses." But, Lin says, "I saw all the things that I loved and lived [in Haywood's books] - my neighborhood, my friends and my school. The only thing that I didn't see was me." As an Asian growing up in a mainly Caucasian community, Grace Lin says that her childhood was not "a miserable, gloomy existence. But it was different." With The Year of the Dog, Lin gracefully (no pun intended) and vividly tells a story that "wraps you in a warm hug," like the Carolyn Haywood books did for her as a child, but also incorporates the identity conflicts and cultural differences that Lin felt were "threads that twisted my life into knots. Now I know that the fabric of my life is richer for them."
The Year of the Dog definitely feels like home, but it will also introduce young readers to new traditions, foods, words and customs. The book begins on the day that Pacy Lin and herMom, Dad, older sister Lissy and younger sister Ki-Ki are celebrating Chinese New Year. Special foods are prepared, happy phone calls are made from Taiwan, there Pacy's parents were born, and the New Year Tray is filled with special Chinese New Year candy. When Ki-Ki begins to shovel the special candy into her mouth, leaving the tray less than full, Pacy has the idea to throw in some M&Ms, which she loves and considers "real candy." Older sister Lissy insists she can't put M&Ms on the tray, but her father weighs in saying, "We should have both Chinese and American candy for the new year. It's just like us - Chinese-American. I think it's going to be a very sweet year!" And it is, mostly. Pacy's year has it's ups and a few small downs as she attempts to make the most of the Year of the Dog, which is a time for friends, family and thinking, a time for finding yourself and, as Mom explains to little Ki-Ki, "deciding what your values are, what you want to do-that kind of thing."
Grace Lin's The Year of the Dog is just like the tray of New Year's candy that Pacy assembles - a combination of American and Chinese tastes, but, above all else, a mixture of sweet treats that everyone loves. As the narrator, Pacy's voice is true and bright and, while so much of the story is about her experience as a Chinese American (even this description proves complicated for Pacy, who's parents are from Taiwan) it is, above all else, a book about the universal themes of family, friendship and finding one's passion. Pacy meets her best friend in the Year of the Dog - Melody, who's family is also from Taiwan. Pacy is no longer the only Asian in her school and she has a partner for the science fair. She struggles with her role of munchkin in the school play, worrying that the audience will laugh when they see a Chinese munchkin. And, when her class is given the assignment to write and illustrate a book, her teacher emphasizing that the students should write about what they know, Pacy finds herself without a single good idea. When she finally does find one, it comes from her mother's garden where she grows what Pacy refers to as the "ugly vegetables." Really, they are vegetables from her mother's homeland and, the book that Pacy writes (which wins her fourth place in a nationwide contest) is one that Grace Lin herself wrote and illustrated and titled, The Ugly Vegetables.
While The Year of the Dog adroitly embraces childhood experiences - I know I'm quite a bit older than Grace Lin, but her writing took me back to my own elementary school days some 30+ years ago - it is also a book that is rich with the experiences of a different culture. Like her magnificent book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, The Year of the Dog is dotted with stories that Pacy's parents tell about their childhood's and their ancestors' experiences growing up in Taiwan as well as Grace Lin's delightful illustrations. I found her descriptions of the foods and celebrations that Pacy's family had intriguing - especially the Red Egg party for her newborn cousin Albert and the family trip to the market in New York City's Chinatown which ended with two overflowing shopping carts and a car packed so full that Pacy had to sit on six cans of baby corn. Lin finds the perfect balance in her novel and I am sure that children with have the simultaneous experience of relating to Pacy and learning new things from her.
Pacy's story continues in The Year of the Rat. The Year of the Dog is over and the Year of the Pig has passed by as well. Pacy and Melody are together with their families celebrating the Year of the Rat, a time for making changes.