One of the foundational tenets of juvenile librarianship (at least to me) is being able to provide a book for any child. As such, the ability of children to see and recognize themselves in books is so very, very important. In Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog, this need is vocalized by Pacy, a young Taiwanese-American girl, who decides to write her own book after she fails to see any books that reflect herself or her life.
The Year of the Dog begins with Chinese New Year, and rings in the Year of the Dog. This is going to be an auspicious year for Pacy, as she believes she will find her best friend, and discover herself. The first count is easily matched when Pacy meets Melody, the only other Chinese girl in school (aside from Pacy’s sister). Pacy and Melody have their differences, but they are tightly bound by their similarities. The second count, finding herself, proves to be more difficult for Pacy. She tries to discover what she will be when she grows up (A scientist? An actress?). As the year comes to a close, ushering in the Year of the Pig, Pacy has learned a lot about herself and where she belongs.
Kids are so often asked, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” that it’s no wonder Pacy feels pressure to answer the question. This worry is something to which many children can relate. Grace Lin has a finely tuned ear when it comes to adolescent dialogue, and understanding the inside of a child’s mind. Never does it feel like an adult is putting words in Pacy’s mouth. Her troubles and triumphs feel authentic. When Pacy feels as if she has excelled at a science fair project, she is told her “scientific method was seriously flawed.” It’s very easy to understand the feeling of crushed hopes and also the realization that you were wrong, and need to try again.
As with Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, in Pacy’s world, food=culture. I dare you to read this book and not get hungry. From the Chinese New Year meals that frame the story, to the Chinese vegetables that inspire Pacy’s first foray into authorship and the candy not allowed at Melody’s house, to the story of the dinner served first to ghosts, then to living ghosts, food permeates Pacy’s life. At an egg party for a newborn relative, Pacy’s mother informs her that while “’Ja-ba, bei?’ meant, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ it was also a Taiwanese way of just saying, ‘How are you doing?’”. Food is so intrinsically linked to life, it is part of how to say, “Hello.”
Pacy’s culture is a huge part of her life in other ways as well. Like Yuriko in The Favorite Daughter The Name Jar, Pacy struggles with her identity and even her name. She is Pacy to her family, but she has an American name for school: Grace. Both names were given to her by her parents, but the choice to use one over the other in school was made for her by a previous teacher (“No, no, no. You’re a big girl now; you don’t go by that name anymore.”). Pacy doesn’t want to correct her teacher, but worries no one will know who she really is. Later, Pacy deals with the issue of being Taiwanese-American, part one thing and part another. At a Taiwanese-American Convention, a few girls tease Pacy because she doesn’t speak Chinese or Taiwanese, saying Pacy’s been “Americanized” and that she “doesn’t have any culture”. One girl calls Pacy a “Twinkie”, meaning she is yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. Pacy struggles with this bullying, but finds confidence in the teacher’s praise of her drawing skills.
Finally, the impulse and need to see oneself in books is articulated by our heroine after she is told she couldn’t play Dorothy in the school play, because “Dorothy’s not Chinese.” Pacy realizes she never sees Chinese people, in books, plays or on screen, and thinks, “How come Chinese people are never important?” When Melody suggests Pacy write her own book featuring Chinese characters, Pacy’s desire to find out who she is comes to fruition. She writes and illustrates a book entitled “The Ugly Vegetables” and wins a prize in a national contest.
The Year of the Dog received a starred review from Booklist. The review highlights how “chapters are bolstered by anecdotes from Grace's parents, which connect Grace (and the reader) to her Taiwanese heritage” and says that Lin has “written the book she wished she had as a child.” Kirkus Reviews said “[e]lementary school readers will enjoy the familiar details of school life and the less familiar but deliciously described Chinese holiday meals.” The Year of the Dog was an Asian Pacific American Award honorable mention for 2006-7 and was a Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award nominee in 2010.
For readers who enjoyed Pacy and her family, her story continues in The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days. Grace Lin has also written a set of Chinese folklore novels, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (which won a Newbery honor) and Starry River of the Sky. For younger readers (especially emerging readers) and listeners, Lin has a wonderful series of learning to read books about twins Ling and Ting, including Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! and the new Ling & Ting: Twice as Silly. There are several other middle grade books about looking for or accepting cultural identity, including The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani, My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman and In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord.
Lin, Grace. The Year of the Dog. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006. ISBN: 9780316060004