Review of the Day: The Year of the Dog
This year I have decided to read as many really good children’s books published in 2006 as humanly possible. This means that I pay particularly close attention to the books my co-workers (other children’s librarians) promote loudly. One of the first titles this year that received such promotion was a little politely perfect story by the name of, “The Year of the Dog”. So delicate as to come across as almost fragile, this is one of those books that makes stories out of a minimum of words. You will not find any excess to this story. No long-winded exposition or sentences written solely for the purpose of filling the page. Instead, this is a finely honed and delicately crafted title that is bound to be enjoyed by vast hoards of children, should it ever fall into their hands. You job? See that it does.
It’s the Year of the Dog, and Pacy has just learned that this is the year she’s supposed to “find herself” and make new friends. This means that a person will need a lot of luck, and fortunately she has that in spades. For example, there’s a new girl in school. A new girl who’s exactly Pacy’s age and who, just like her, is Taiwanese-American. Her name is Melody and instantly she and Pacy become best friends. Together, the two experience everything from school tryout and a book contest to figuring out which boy they like and what to dress up as for Halloween. As the year goes by, there’s plenty to do and plenty to learn.
What really gives this book a push past other children’s books out there is just how kid-friendly it is. Whether she’s discussing a science fair project or trying out for the school play, Lin seems to have an uncanny knack for tapping into the heads of children. The characters befriend one another, have small fights, and go through the usual steps of kids of that age. There is a gentleness to Lin’s storytelling too. You know that when the new Taiwanese girl comes to class, she’s not going to reject Pacy’s advances for friendship. And then there are the tiny pen-and-ink drawings that illustrate the story. From the step-by-step instructions of “How to draw a dog” (the same one you see on the book’s cover) to The Wizard of Oz curtain call or a single twinkie, Lin’s pictures fill out a precise little story with precise little illustrations.
Now I made the serious mistake of reading, “The Year of the Dog”, while my plane sat for four hours on a New Orleans tarmac through both lunch and dinnertime. I would like to advise you to never ever read this book if your tummy is grumbling. From the moment the book opens on Chinese New Year to feast after feast after feast, you’re going to find your salivation glands filling mighty fast while reading this story. Have you ever read the descriptions of food in the Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, “Little House” books? Well that’s the kind of evocative description you’re going to discover when Lin talks about some of the tastiest Taiwanese dishes out there.
For Taiwanese kids growing up in America, it’s tough to figure out the politics of something as simple as their own culture. Are they Taiwanese? Chinese? Lin does a magnificent job of simplifying the situation for children without downplaying the importance of the topic or making it seem unimportant. She even makes the daring choice of having her main character teased for not being Taiwanese enough. Issues like this are given enough room so that the kids reading the book can think through the difficult situations and maybe find fault with the narrator’s perceptions. For example, Pacy at one point says that could never be a character in the school production of, “The Wizard of Oz”, because who’s ever heard of a Taiwanese munchkin? Lin shows this to be a silly concern without having some didactic character push their way onto the page and deliver the obligatory you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be speech all too common in children’s literature. Consider this author capable of something a little classier and a little smarter than great grand sweeping statements such as that.
It’s rare to find any book as small and intelligent as this little novel. For those readers who like chapter books but still need pictures, “The Year of the Dog” fills a definite need. Probably one of the more beautiful books to come out this or any other year. It’s required reading.