Grace Lin’s Juvenile Fiction
Posted by: Allison on: December 17, 2011
Anyone remember the B is for Betsy and E is for Eddie books by Carolyn Haywood? These were favorite chapter books of Grace Lin during her childhood. In many ways, Haywood’s books are similar to Lin’s three semi-autobiographical books for eight to twelve-year olds: The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days. Haywood and Lin both wrote stories about average children and the ordinary events that took place in their lives at home, in school, and around the neighborhood. The main difference is that Lin has written about her experiences growing up Asian in a mainly Caucasian community. Lin has compared her reading of the Betsy and Eddie books to being wrapped in a warm hug. Despite our different ethnic backgrounds, Lin’s books feel that comfortable to me too.
The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat both start and end with Pacy’s family celebrating the Chinese New Year. The dominant theme of these two books is also related to the year being celebrated: The Year of the Dog is about finding new friends; The Year of the Rat symbolizes changes. The newest installment of the Pacy books, Dumpling Days, is different in being about Pacy’s trip to China with her family. Like the other two books, however, the clue to the theme of the book can be found in the title: No matter how bad Pacy’s day has been, dumplings can always brighten it. All three books are also about family, friendship, and love. Moreover, Grace Lin mixes in a lot of Chinese culture. The latter is often revealed through family stories, which enhance rather than interrupt the plots, and in the superstitions of various relatives.
In The Year of the Dog, Pacy makes a new friend. If you think this friendship theme is overdone, the twist is that before Melody’s family moves into the neighborhood Pacy has been the only Asian girl in school. The day Melody arrives at school, Pacy is lined up in the cafeteria as usual for lunch. The lunch lady initially refuses to serve Pacy because she thinks she’s just served her. That’s when Pacy discovers to her great delight that she’s no longer the only Asian around. If now you’re thinking instead that this is another book about prejudice, you’d be wrong. That is not to say she doesn’t sometimes encounter racism, as when she attends a Taiwanese-American Camp (TAC), the Asian girls call her “Twinkie” because Pacy can’t speak Chinese and so has been in their words “Americanized”. Mostly though, Year of the Dog is a fun mix of small and big moments in Pacy’s life with her family and friends. For example, upon the birth of their cousin Albert, Pacy and her two sisters (Lissy and Ki-ki) color eggs red. Older sister Lissy tells Pacy that not all Chinese babies get Red Egg parties: “You didn’t.” When Pacy asks why, Lissy says it’s probably because Pacy was a sick baby. When younger sister Ki-Ki explains that Pacy got sick from ammonia, the two try to rid the house of it—much to the amusement of Lissy. Another day, after Melody and Pacy become best friends, the two girls stuff themselves with children’s chewable vitamins because Melody’s family keeps only healthy food in the house. Then there is the school book contest. One day the librarian comes to their art class and announces a book contest, wherein the winning entry is to be published. Pacy discovers “herself” through the book contest: She decides to make books when she grows up!
In The Year of the Rat, one of the changes that Pacy faces is saying good-bye to Melody, whose family moves from New York to California. Yes, I know this can be a cliché. By removing a friend from the picture, an author is left with the ability to introduce new friends and hence new adventures. Remember, though, Grace Lin’s books are semi-autobiographical; Melody’s family is based on a real situation, which Lin weaves into her sweet and charming tale of family and friendship. In drawing upon her Asian heritage, she also ensures that her tales are unique. For example, one day the family heads off to Albany to visit Pacy’s cousin Max who is turning one. Presents are opened, platters of food are served, and then Uncle Clifford brings out the destiny plate. Each item placed on the plate symbolizes a different job. Whichever one Max picks is thought represent the job he will one day hold. True to what you might expect from a toddler, Max just wants to eat his cake. Maybe he’ll be a baker? One of my favorite and bittersweet moments in the book occurs when Pacy helps Melody pack. Melody is told she can’t take all her books with her and so must give half to Pacy. The girls struggle to pick who will get which books, until they hit upon a compromise. After Pacy is done with with a book, she’ll mail it back to Melody. In the aftermath of this plan, a funny incident happens that I’ll leave to you to find. As with The Year of the Dog, not everything is perky and light. Pacy continues to struggle to find balance in her mixed identity as American and Chinese, especially when her peers try to match her with a new Asian boy at school solely based on their common ethnic background. After being cautioned that writers and artists are typically poor, she also begins to explore the wisdom of her career choice.
If you think that “dumplings can brighten your day” is lame for a theme, you might be right. For several chapters of Dumpling Days, I found myself wondering if it would be all about new sights, new food, and new relatives. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it is kind of like being awestruck by a movie simply because of its special effects. At some point, the glitter loses its sparkle. So as much as Lin made me desire to see China, and especially sample its delectable foods, I reached a point where I wanted Dumpling Days to be about something more than just Pacy’s trip to China. Eventually, a theme did emerge: identity. While in China, Pacy is introduced to Ghost Month. During this month, Chinese people make food or burn special money for ghosts to have in the spirit world. Throughout Pacy’s visit in China she encounters those who dislike her because she can’t speak Chinese and so compares herself to the forgotten or lost ghosts. Pacy comes to eventually realize that even her parents and relatives struggle with their identity or “ghosts” too. For example, Pacy’s mom (who grew up in China) feels sad after her purse is stolen—because pickpockets normally only target outsiders. Not everything in Dumping Days is gloomy and serious. There are plenty of fun moments such as when Uncle Clifford takes the sisters for a ride on his scooter. My favorite is when the girls are feeling cranky from jet lag, but perk up when they hear a chiming, jolly song which they mistake for the sound of the ice-cream truck. In China, the garbage truck plays music so that everyone knows when to throw out their garbage. Yet for all the festive and silly episodes in Dumpling Days, it remains the most reflective of Lin’s three semi-autobiographical books.
The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days are all about a normal family without princesses or magic. In contrast, Lin’s Newbery Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a fantasy inspired by Chinese folklore. In the tradition of journey stories, this is about Minli, who goes on a trip to seek a solution to a problem. Her family work hard in the fields but are still poor. Minli seeks the Man of the Moon to ask how the family can change their fortune. As in The Wizard of Oz, Minli meets characters along the way who also need help from the Man of the Moon. Unlike in The Wizard of Oz, only one travels with her: a dragon who can’t fly. In what seems almost too conveniently like The Wizard of Oz, these two comrades encounter evil monkeys when trying to cross the woods to their destination. Other dangers are more original to Lin such as a poisonous tiger. I recognized two motifs from folklore: the disguised king and sacrificed children. Others such as the guardians of the city, the borrowed line, and the fruitless mountain may or may not be derived from Chinese tales with which I am less familiar. In any event, Lin has seamlessly blended various aspects of folklore into one beautiful story. Readers familiar with Lin’s aforementioned chapter books will appreciate that most chapters also contain a mini-story. Many of these are told by Minli’s father; others are told by those whom Minli meets on her way to find the Man of the Moon. What makes Lin’s books so special are their themes of family, friendship, love, and heritage. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon has another theme, which is found in the answer to Minli’s question about how her family can change their fortune. I’ll leave it for you to discover. Happy reading!