As the New Year approaches, we are often encouraged to make resolutions and usher in the coming year with thoughts of new beginnings, introspection, and the plan to be the best you in the coming year. For my column in OutreachNC, I was encouraged to write about books that touched on this subject. Most young children cannot fully comprehend the notion of resolutions, and they shouldn’t need to, but as kids start getting into the middle of elementary school, the notion of looking forward and making changes to make yourself a better person can start to make sense.
In author Grace Lin’s debut novel, “The Year of the Dog,” readers on the third to fifth grade level get a gem of a story about finding yourself in the New Year – the Chinese New Year. Pacy “Grace” Lin, the protagonist of the story, is a young Taiwanese-American girl who lives in an upstate-New York community where there are not a lot of other Chinese children. The beginning of the book finds her family celebrating the Chinese New Year and all of it’s customs with special foods, colors and activities. They are ringing in the year of the Dog, which her mother tells her is a “good year to find yourself…deciding what your values are, what you want to do – that kind of thing.” Grace vows that this year she will discover new talents and decide what she wants to be when she grows up.
What is special about this book is that it is truly told from Grace’s voice and is true to what a child would experience. As Grace moves through the year, she is trying to figure out her place in the larger world. She tries to balance Chinese culture with American culture. She makes new friends and starts paying more attention to which boys might like them. She works on a science fair experiment and auditions for the school play. She is confronted by bullies.
Grace faces struggles that any kid can relate to. While her focus is on the fact that she is Chinese-American in a world where everyone else is white, it comes down to a feeling of fitting in, something we have all considered from time to time. Grace struggles because she cannot see her role in the larger world because of her culture, but this is a feeling most children go through. For Grace it is highlighted when she was going to audition for Dorothy in a school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Rather than saying that of course she should try out, one of her friends comments that she “can’t be Dorothy. Dorothy’s not Chinese.” This feeling is only compounded by the fact that she seems to not find any characters in books or film that are like her, which in turn makes her feel less important.
The biggest turning point for Grace comes when she is working on a project for a national contest called “Written and Illustrated by…” All of the kids in her class get the assignment that they not only have to write a story, but illustrate it as well. Her friends all come up with stories, but she has a major case of writer’s block. Her teacher encourages her to “write what you know” in order to have a book with a unique and original idea. She winds up writing a story that is auto-biographical about the time her mother grew “ugly” vegetables that were turned into an absolutely delicious soup.
J and I really enjoyed reading this book. I think that she could relate to what Grace was going through. We also really enjoyed the family stories that were interwoven throughout the book. Whenever there was an experience that Grace was going through, a family member would tell them a story from their past. For example, when she is so tired after celebrating Chinese New Year that she doesn’t want to go to school, her mother tells her of the story when “Mom Sleeps in School.” Or when she struggles with coming up with a topic for her writing assignment, her mother tells her about “The Paper Piano” to encourage Pacy to work on it a little every day, just like practicing and instrument. These stories kept the whole thing light-hearted and give the story additional depth.
“The Year of the Dog” is a lighthearted coming-of-age novel with a cultural twist. A real page-turner that will delight readers.