With The Year of the Rat, we find Pacy Lin, narrator of Grace Lin's wonderful book The Year of the Dog at almost the same place we left her - a celebration of Chinese New Year with her family and friends. The Year of the Pig has ended and two years have passed since we first met Pacy. As the Year of the Rat, a time of new beginnings and change, kicks off Pacy finds herself wishing that nothing would change. She has found her best friend, Melody, and she has discovered her true talents.
As with The Year of the Dog, Lin seamlessly weaves traditional Chinese tales like "The Story of the Twelve Animals of the Chinese New Year or How the Rat Was First," and family stories about parents and grandparents growing up in Taiwan into her the story of Pacy and her family. As Pacy experiences typical American kid situations - she goes on field trips, worries about the talent show and copes with her loneliness and feelings of alienation after her best friend Melody moves to California, she also participates in family life which for her is rooted in her Chinese heritage and therefore not your typical American kid experience. Once Melody moves, Pacy struggles with being the only Asian girl at her school and also with the presence of Dun-Wei, the son of the family from China that has moved into Melody's house. Pacy doesn't like him at first and finds it difficult to welcome him into her life the way she did with Melody and her family, despite the fact that Pacy's mother has become fast friends with Dun-Wei's mother. When the other kids start calling him "Dumb-Way," Pacy doesn't join in but she also doesn't stop them, at first. The complexity of this situation is a step up from The Year of the Dog and is appropriate, considering Pacy is older in this book. Lin handles the insensitiveness and compulsion to ostracize anyone who is different that school age children are prone to and addresses them through the observations and ideas of Pacy in a very thoughtful, realistic manner.
In The Year of the Rat Pacy also struggles with her new found talent. While her skills as a writer and artist continue to flourish, she begins to worry about whether she can find work with her talent when she grows up. The destiny plate at her cousin Max's two year birthday is what gets her thinking. In Chinese tradition a tray holding items representative of various professions is put in front of the two year old on his or her birthday and the first object the child grabs predicts the career path s/he will take. A book, a stethoscope, a toy truck, money and a paint brush were among the items on Max's tray. When Pacy's father says to move the paintbrush to the edge of the tray before presenting it to Max, she asks why. Her father says that they don't want him to choose the "cold door." As cousin Clifford explains, "The idea is that there are many doors you can choose to walk through - all being different kinds of lives. A lot of people think that if you choose to become an artist, you are choosing a harder life - poor and shivering. You know how they always say 'starving artists'? So, being an artist is a cold door." I love this tradition, all of the traditions that Lin incorporates into her books, but I also think that including the ideas of having a true talent and then the possibility that pursuing this talent in adult life might be a struggle is excellent and rarely found in children's literature. Lin finds a way to take a mature theme, such as the work of one's life, present it in a way that is palatable and comprehensible to children and layer on the idea that doing what you love isn't always the easiest choice.