A Chinese American Novel by Grace Lin

1. Bibliography

Lin, Grace. 2020. The Year of the Dog. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-06000-3

2. Plot Summary

The Year of the Dog is the semi-autobiographical story of Grace Lin, a Taiwanese American on a special journey to find herself. Grace isn’t sure exactly what she wants to be when she grows up, but she’s determined to figure it out during the year of the dog! But she’ll need to decide exactly who she is first. At home, Grace is called “Pacy,” her Chinese name. At school, she’s called Grace. But when Grace meets the only other Chinese American girl in her school and becomes fast friends, Grace learns that she’s different from her Chinese American friend: Not only does Melody not have an American name like Grace, but the Chinese food that Melody eats at home is very different from the Chinese food that Grace’s mom makes, and Melody knows how to speak Chinese while Grace doesn’t. Grace will have to navigate these differences, using the stories of her parents and penning her own experiences to enrich her understanding of her place in the world. This story includes intermittent illustrations and a final author’s note.

3.  Critical Analysis

The discussion of culture is what makes this book an exceptional one. Grace’s experiences throughout the story highlight what culture is and why it isn’t a monolith. For example, even though Grace and Melody share a cultural heritage, they express it in different ways. Both girls are proud to be Taiwanese, but Grace isn’t any less Taiwanese American for not speaking Taiwanese and Melody isn’t a “better” Taiwanese American for speaking it! Grace Lin’s book points out that there are multiple ways to be Taiwanese American and that’s okay! Grace is bulled by other Taiwanese American girls for not being Taiwanese enough (like when she’s called a “twinkie” at Taiwanese American Convention) and by her white classmates for not being white enough (like when she thinks about trying out for Dorothy in the school production of Wizard of Oz). Grace Lin refutes the fallacy of “not enough.” Grace can be both Taiwanese and American and she’s not “too much” or “too little” of either! She’s a celebration of both. In Grace’s house, the Chinese New Year tradition of putting traditional candy in a bowl is mixed with the new American tradition of adding M&Ms. Grace’s father celebrates the “new” mixed bowl: “It’s just like us—Chinese-American.” Thanksgiving is another mix of two cultures: a small turkey sits on the table surrounded by a feast of traditional Chinese foods. Any and all readers who belong to two cultures can find invaluable understanding and nuance in Grace’s discussion.

Speaking of celebrations, Grace Lin also does a phenomenal job of welcoming readers to Chinese cultural traditions in an accessible, matter-of-fact way. Not only does Lin talk about the Chinese New Year, but also about a Red Egg Party (complete with egg dying and envelopes full of money) and her grandmother’s way of soothing Grace’s neck muscles (by drawing tiger and pig symbols on Grace’s neck). For outsiders, Grace’s explanations of family traditions are helpful and educational. For insiders, they’re respectful acknowledgment of lived reality. Lin also emphasizes her cultural values: The “oral” stories that accompany most chapters in Year of the Dog connect past generations of Grace’s Taiwanese heritage to Grace’s present life, highlighting both storytelling and family as important aspects of Grace’s life and family culture.

With nuanced cultural discussions, an accessible introduction to Chinese traditions, and an interesting protagonist that brings one Taiwanese American child’s perspectives to life, The Year of the Dog is an important, entertaining chapter book. A definite children’s library purchase. Highly recommended.

4. Rewards and Review Excerpts

Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, 2006-2007, Honorable Mention, Youth Literature

National Association of Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA), 2006, Gold Winner, Grades 3-7

New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, 2006, Stories for Older Readers Booklist Editors’ Choice: Books for Youth, 2006, Middle Reader

From CCBC: “A breezy novel for middle grade readers is about Grace, whose life is an exuberant blend of home and school, family and friends, and Chinese and American traditions. . . . In an author’s note, Lin states that she set out to write the kind of story she would have loved as a child, in which the magic comes in reading about the regular lives of the characters. She deftly infuses that magic into her own narrative, which is grounded in lively, authentic details of childhood.”

From Kirkus: “This comfortable first-person story will be a treat for Asian-American girls looking to see themselves in their reading, but also for any reader who enjoys stories of friendship and family life.”

5. Connections

The Year of the Dog was an Asian Pacific American Award honor book in 2006. Create a display of APA award titles from past years. Show children last year’s award recipients, reading excerpts from both middle grade books that were awarded and inviting children to browse the tiles on their own.

Create a display of books by Grace Lin. This selection might include the following:

  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. ISBN 9780316038638
  • When the Sea Turned Silver. ISBN 9780316125925
  • A Big Mooncake for Little Star. ISBN 9780316404488
  • Dim Sum for Everyone. ISBN 9780375810824
  • The Ugly Vegetables. ISBN 9780881063363
  • Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same!. ISBN 9780316024525