Wednesday, January 10, 2007


THE YEAR OF THE DOG by Grace Lin (Little, Brown)
"My favorite chapter books when I was younger were by Carolyn Haywood--B IS FOR BETSY...they had families and ate dinner and waited for the bus. They were normal families without unicorns or fairy princesses, but the stories were magical to me. When I read those books, it was as if I was wrapped in a warm hug. I saw all the things that I loved and lived--my neighborhood, my friends, and my school. The only thing I didn't see was me." So writes Grace Lin, who deftly fills the need from her own childhood with these delicious navigations through daily life via a character that is her namesake. In her lucky birth year, Grace dreams of discovering what she is good at, while watching her friends realize their abilities through science fairs, school plays and costume contests. Not until Grace tries her hand at creating a book does she discover what her special gift might be.

Tales that highlight Taiwanese culture run parallel to the familiar American situations: a Red Egg party in honor of the birth of a new cousin, eating yucky health food at a friend's house (a situation children of all cultures will sympathize with), and Grace's mother's Chinese-influenced versions of American holidays is worth the price of the book alone (I think she makes great improvements on Thanksgiving dinner). Perhaps the most precious parts of all, though, are the interspersed vignettes shared by Grace's mother, which belie the author's storytelling ability. A particularly moving section about Grace's encounters with prejudice within her own culture is also a memorable point worthy of dicussion. Why this book is so explicity called "a novel" on the cover is mystifying to me, as it so clearly leans towards memoir, with the author even being so self-referential as to have an illustration of a science fair exhibit labeled "by Grace Lin." From a teaching perspective, this was wildly annoying, but in the big scheme of a book that successfully accomplishes what the author set out to do (which heaven knows doesn't happen all the time in publishing), it might be overlooked. This title has a great charisma and honesty, and does indeed celebrate the everyday. Unpretentious drawings throughout by the author are both charming and dear, and give the young reader a more intimate connection with the writing. A graceful leap into fiction from the author's previous picture books, third grade girls everywhere and fans of Marissa Moss's AMELIA series will find a likeable friend in Grace, and this offering will be a special boon to any child seeking cultural identity and cultural affirmation. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
This book has many references to Chinese New Year in it, which means it would probably be very handy to also have a copy of the absolutely brilliant and unique author Demi's HAPPY NEW YEAR!/KUNG-H'SAI FA T'SAI! which is both the most informative and beautiful book I know on the holiday, showing what symbols mean, what food represents, and all the traditional activities and customs. Did you know Demi has been known to paint with a mouse's whisker?

Also very handy is MOONBEAMS, DUMPLINGS AND DRAGON BOATS: A TREASURY OF CHINESE HOLIDAY TALES by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz and the Children's Museum, Boston, illustrated by Meilo So (Gulliver). Every teacher I showed this book to gave a gleeful shout upon receiving it in their hands, as if welcoming someone they hoped would stop by. I gave the shout myself when I saw this title, a much-needed resource and long-awaited addition to any multicultural collection. This book spills over with crafts, recipes, stories and fascinating general information pertaining to Chinese New Year and the lantern Festival, Qing Ming and the Cold Foods Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Intruiged? You should be, this stuff is more delicious than a Five-Treasure Moon Cake (yes, a recipe for that is included, too!). A guide to Chinese pronunciation, internet resources and a compass to the Chinese Zodiac are a few of the handy extras that you'll find. Some of Meilo So's illustrations are so brightly colored and energetic, I wonder if she didn't dip her paintbrush into a firecracker to make these pictures! Phenomenally festive and just plain fun, both children and adults will love poring over it, and every teacher absolutely needs it! Non-fiction fit for a dragon! (6 and up) In

HAVE A GOOD DAY CAFÉ by Frances and Ginger Park, illustrated by Katherine Potter (Lee & Low) is a terrific story that, like YEAR OF THE DOG, touches on the struggles of being new in the 'hood. Mike makes a clever culinary choice in order to solve the problem of his parent's failing food cart and his grandmother's homesickness. This picture book featuring new arrivals to America from Korea has a lot of meat to it! (6 and up)

On a personal note:
Ever notice how a whole classroom has a kind of personality, a whole-group dynamic with certain traits that vary from year to year? Or, how some superstitious teachers suggest that a great class will be followed by a tough one? I was very big into studying the Chinese zodiac for a while there, and so I created classroom horoscopes based on the Chinese zodiac to determine best teaching practices, based the dominant year of birth of the children. Check it out...was I on the mark for your classroom? For entertainment purposes, I did not actually use this as the basis of my pedagogy, and sorry, you'll still have to do your lesson plans.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Grace Lin said...

Thanks so much for the nice words about The Year of the Dog, I'm so glad and honored you liked it.

AND congrats on the Sydney Taylor Honor Award!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mary Lee said...

Your horoscopes are humorous, but I must say, WAY off for my class this year! Ah, well. I read your disclaimer. I could write the horoscope for this year's class, but that would just be too snarky. Less than 5 months to go! (Not that I'm counting!)

Anonymous said...

I did a book discussion group with 2nd grade girls this past summer and we all loved The Year of the Dog!

If you're interested in seeing the questions we discussed, click here.

Thanks for this blog Esme - I always enjoy the books I learn about here!


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