Review: The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

The Year of the Dog, by Grace Lin (Little, Brown & Co., 2006)

The Year of the Dog
by Grace Lin
(Little, Brown & Co., 2006)

This is Grace Lin’s first novel and she wrote it because ‘this was the book I wished I had growing up’: it includes the things she loved about her life—her neighborhood, friends and school’—from her Asian-American cultural perspective, which she never had in books as a child.  Indeed, there are still not enough books for young readers about growing up with a mixed heritage, so this will fill that gap on many a child’s book-shelf  and may well become a firm favourite.  The story is based on Lin’s own childhood and  spans one Chinese New Year to the next.  From the moment the M&M’s join the traditional candy in the New Year Tray, we know we are in for a sparkling ride as we join Pacy (whose American name is Grace) on her particular quest for the Year of the Dog: to find herself and what she will be when she grows up.  By the end of the year, she is able to look back on it with pride and satisfaction.  The accompanying doodles all the way through are an added delight.  Lin has a real aptitude for depicting facial expression—the family portrait, Granpa alone in his clinic, Melody as a spy, the row of grandmothers, the mean girl…  And I defy anyone who reads this book not to take up a pen and follow the step-by-step instructions for drawing the eponymous dog!

Interspersed in the narrative are anecdotal stories from other people—usually her mother and usually introduced with something like ‘Did I ever tell you about…?’:  how her grandfather got rich; the amazing paper piano; her mother’s first day at school and more.  They not only help Pacy to make up her mind about her own way forward, but they sow seeds of wisdom which readers can carry away with them.  It is also a great way to explore perceptions of difference: Pacy longs to play Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz but her friend Becky is shocked at the very idea—’Dorothy’s not Chinese’;  the lunch lady thinks Pacy has taken two lunches because she can’t see the difference between her and her friend Melody;  Pacy doesn’t like eating at Melody’s house because the food, still Korean like hers at home, is too healthy; she is victimised at the Taiwanese American Camp because she doesn’t speak Taiwanese or Chinese.

Young readers will find this book hard to put down, whether they share  Pacy’s Asian-American background or not—and at the end they are invited to have a look at Grace Lin’s website to check out exactly which bits are “absolutely” real – as she says, ‘You might be surprised!’

Marjorie Coughlan
June 2006

This review first appeared here on the website in June 2006.

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