Thursday, November 13, 2014

Class Post - Review - "The Year of the Dog"



One of the foundational tenets of juvenile librarianship (at least to me) is being able to provide a book for any child.  As such, the ability of children to see and recognize themselves in books is so very, very important.  In Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog, this need is vocalized by Pacy, a young Taiwanese-American girl, who decides to write her own book after she fails to see any books that reflect herself or her life.

The Year of the Dog begins with Chinese New Year, and rings in the Year of the Dog.  This is going to be an auspicious year for Pacy, as she believes she will find her best friend, and discover herself.  The first count is easily matched when Pacy meets Melody, the only other Chinese girl in school (aside from Pacy’s sister).  Pacy and Melody have their differences, but they are tightly bound by their similarities.  The second count, finding herself, proves to be more difficult for Pacy.  She tries to discover what she will be when she grows up (A scientist?  An actress?).  As the year comes to a close, ushering in the Year of the Pig, Pacy has learned a lot about herself and where she belongs.

Kids are so often asked, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” that it’s no wonder Pacy feels pressure to answer the question.  This worry is something to which many children can relate.  Grace Lin has a finely tuned ear when it comes to adolescent dialogue, and understanding the inside of a child’s mind.  Never does it feel like an adult is putting words in Pacy’s mouth.  Her troubles and triumphs feel authentic.  When Pacy feels as if she has excelled at a science fair project, she is told her “scientific method was seriously flawed.”  It’s very easy to understand the feeling of crushed hopes and also the realization that you were wrong, and need to try again.

As with Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, in Pacy’s world, food=culture.  I dare you to read this book and not get hungry.  From the Chinese New Year meals that frame the story, to the Chinese vegetables that inspire Pacy’s first foray into authorship and the candy not allowed at Melody’s house, to the story of the dinner served first to ghosts, then to living ghosts, food permeates Pacy’s life.  At an egg party for a newborn relative, Pacy’s mother informs her that while “’Ja-ba, bei?’ meant, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ it was also a Taiwanese way of just saying, ‘How are you doing?’”.  Food is so intrinsically linked to life, it is part of how to say, “Hello.”

Pacy’s culture is a huge part of her life in other ways as well.  Like Yuriko in The Favorite Daughter The Name Jar, Pacy struggles with her identity and even her name.  She is Pacy to her family, but she has an American name for school: Grace.  Both names were given to her by her parents, but the choice to use one over the other in school was made for her by a previous teacher (“No, no, no.  You’re a big girl now; you don’t go by that name anymore.”).  Pacy doesn’t want to correct her teacher, but worries no one will know who she really is.  Later, Pacy deals with the issue of being Taiwanese-American, part one thing and part another.  At a Taiwanese-American Convention, a few girls tease Pacy because she doesn’t speak Chinese or Taiwanese, saying Pacy’s been “Americanized” and that she “doesn’t have any culture”.  One girl calls Pacy a “Twinkie”, meaning she is yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.  Pacy struggles with this bullying, but finds confidence in the teacher’s praise of her drawing skills.
and Unhei in

Finally, the impulse and need to see oneself in books is articulated by our heroine after she is told she couldn’t play Dorothy in the school play, because “Dorothy’s not Chinese.”  Pacy realizes she never sees Chinese people, in books, plays or on screen, and thinks, “How come Chinese people are never important?”  When Melody suggests Pacy write her own book featuring Chinese characters, Pacy’s desire to find out who she is comes to fruition.  She writes and illustrates a book entitled “The Ugly Vegetables” and wins a prize in a national contest.

The Year of the Dog received a starred review from Booklist.  The review highlights how “chapters are bolstered by anecdotes from Grace's parents, which connect Grace (and the reader) to her Taiwanese heritage” and says that Lin has “written the book she wished she had as a child.”  Kirkus Reviews said “[e]lementary school readers will enjoy the familiar details of school life and the less familiar but deliciously described Chinese holiday meals.”  The Year of the Dog was an Asian Pacific American Award honorable mention for 2006-7 and was a Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award nominee in 2010.

For readers who enjoyed Pacy and her family, her story continues in The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days.  Grace Lin has also written a set of Chinese folklore novels, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (which won a Newbery honor) and Starry River of the Sky.  For younger readers (especially emerging readers) and listeners, Lin has a wonderful series of learning to read books about twins Ling and Ting, including Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same! and the new Ling & Ting: Twice as Silly.  There are several other middle grade books about looking for or accepting cultural identity, including The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani, My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman and In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord.


Lin, Grace.  The Year of the Dog.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006.  ISBN: 9780316060004

Class Post - Review - "The Name Jar"



As seen in Allen Say’s The Favorite Daughter, names can be a very strong tie to your identity when you are young (and when you are not).  A name can denote where you came from and who your family is or was.  The heroine of Yangsook Choi’s picture book The Name Jar struggles with her name and her new identity as an American.

Unhei has left her grandparents in Korea, and is starting a new school in America.  When kids have difficulty pronouncing her name (“Yoon-hye”), she decides she would prefer an American name.  Unhei tries out different names, and the children in her class decide to help, creating a Name Jar filled with their suggestions.  With some help from her faraway grandma and a new friend, Unhei takes ownership of her own name.

Like Yuriko from The Favorite Daughter, Unhei is teased because of her name, and wishes to change it.  And like Yuriko, visits to familiar places and words from family help Unhei decide to be who she is, because who she is is special.  Choi’s story negotiates the turbulent waters of adolescence and school with a gentle ease.  Her classmates tease Unhei, but are not cruel.  Though their help is misguided (in wanting her to pick a new name), their desire to aid Unhei with the Name Jar is well-meaning.  Anxiety over a name is a common childhood complaint, and such Unhei’s story is something to which many children, regardless of their background, will be able to relate.  Choi illustrates her children with bright faces and easy smiles, giving the book a relaxed feel, so that even when Unhei is being teased, there does not appear to be any malice in it.

From the beginning, on the second illustrated spread, Choi sets up the cultural background of her   This two page spread sees Unhei saying goodbye to her grandparents in an airport in Korea, while her grandma gives her a wooden block with her name in Korean letters on it (we find out later this block is a name stamp).  When Unhei doubts her name, a trip to Kim’s Deli to pick up kimchi and seaweed reminds her of Korea.  “Just because we’ve moved to America…doesn’t mean we stop eating Korean food,” her mother says.  It is in the market, talking to Mr. Kim that the reader learns the meaning behind Unhei’s name.  Here, feeling safe among her family and familiar cultural markers, Unhei proudly announces of her name that “My mother and grandmother went to a name master for it.”
main character.

Kirkus Reviews highlights Choi’s illustrations, saying “The paintings are done in creamy, earth-tone oils and augment the story nicely.”  The review also praises how Choi “draws from her own experience, interweaving several issues into this touching account and delicately addressing the challenges of assimilation.”  Booklist also notes the beauty of Choi’s art, noting the earth-tones and that “the figures have both stature and simplicity--as does the story.”  The Name Jar was a nominee for several state book awards, including those from Utah, Arizona, Arkansas and California.

The Name Jar would pair wonderfully with Allen Say’s The Favorite Daughter, as both books feature a young girl wrestling with name anxiety and with her cultural heritage, as well as being personal stories told by the author/illustrator.  The Three Names of Me by Mary Cummings features a girl adopted from China, and the three names she claims: one whispered by her birth mother, one from the orphanage and one from her adopted American parents.  Each name represents a piece of who she is.  My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits and beautifully illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska features a similar conundrum to The Name Jar.  Yoon is in a new country, and writing her name in Korean makes her feel happy, but her father says she must learn to write it in English.  Yoon goes through much of the same questioning that Unhei does, and the two books make good companions to each other.  For a silly note from the same song, My Name Is Elizabeth, by Annika Dunklee and illustrated by Matthew Forsythe is a funny picture book about Elizabeth, who loves her name…but don’t call her Lizzie.  Or Beth.  And don’t even think about Betsy.  Like Yuriko, Unhei and Yoon, Elizabeth has strongly linked her identity to her preferred version of her name.


Choi, Yangsook.  The Name Jar.  New York: Dragonfly Books, 2001.  ISBN: 9780440417996


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Class Post - Review - "The Favorite Daughter"



When you are a young child, your identity is what people say you are.  It isn’t until we start to become autonomous human beings that we start to learn for ourselves who we are.  Accordingly, there is a niche of juvenile literature that speaks to this conundrum and appeals to kids who are just starting to question their lives and surroundings in a way that will help shape the person they are growing to be.  Author and illustrator Allen Say’s picture book, The Favorite Daughter, is one such book.

Yuriko’s heritage is Japanese-American, but kids at school make fun of her blonde hair (“They said Japanese dolls have black hair.” – emphasis by the author), her kimono, and her new art teacher accidentally calls her “Eureka”.  Yuriko decides to change her name to Michelle (“That’s a French name, Honey.”), but her father tries to get her in touch with herself before she makes such a momentous change.  When stymied by an art project, Yuriko and her father make a trip to the Japanese Garden at the Golden Gate Park, and Yuriko finds validation for herself and inspiration for her project.

Allen Say has been sharing bits and pieces of his life with lucky readers and listeners for some time. 
This book tells an anecdote about his daughter, but it is very much about him as well.  The father is chagrined when his daughter wants to change her name, when she wants a nametag instead of the locket he gave her and when she fusses about her art project, though he tries not to show it.  Instead, he tries to show her things in her life she’s forgotten that make her who she is: her favorite sushi restaurant, a photograph of her kimono (here, Say inserts a real photograph of his daughter in a red kimono) and the beauty of her name.  This book is a little bittersweet, with Say’s touches of nostalgia for his grown daughter accenting each page.  The commonplace nature of the base story (an unwanted art project) give readers and listeners a feeling of familiarity and universality, which allow for a multitude of varying recipients to see themselves in the story.

Say’s illustrations are beautiful, as always, highlighting the beauty of the Japanese Garden and the smile on his daughter’s face upon completing her project.  Say’s decision to include real life photographs of the real Yuriko, one as a young child, and one grown up, underline the importance of her cultural heritage.  Her round infant face and red kimono contrast beautifully with her yellow-blonde hair.  Say also uses language in a very detailed way to highlight cultural identity.  The linguistic appellations “san” (to denote respect) and “chan” (to refer to a child) are used in a scene that helps Yuriko accept her name.  Other cultural details, like it being bad manners to rub your chopsticks together, pepper the story (Father calls it “[s]harpening your sticks.”)

Kirkus Reviews lauded the universality of Say’s story, saying, “Some will identify with the cultural details that ground the tale; all will relate to how teasing makes Yuriko feel uncertain about the very things that make her unique.”  Publishers Weekly praise  his “meticulous draftsmanship and openhearted honesty.”  This book was a silver medal winner at the NAPPA (National Parenting Publication Awards) Gold Awards for Early Elementary literature.

The Favorite Daughter is thankfully not Say’s only piece of autobiographical literature.  As I said above, Say has been sharing his story with readers and listeners for many years.  His Caldecott winning picture book, Grandfather’s Journey, tells the story of his Grandfather’s trans-Pacific journey and his cultural experiences in Japan and America.  Say turned intimately to his own life with Drawing from Memory, a graphic autobiography of Say’s apprenticeship and his road to becoming an artist.

For younger patrons, I would recommend Rosemary Well’s  series of picture books about the Japanese cat, Yoko.  Like Yuriko, Yoko deals with teasing at school because of her heritage, and like Yuriko, she has an understanding family that helps her see the beauty inside.


Say, Allen.  The Favorite Daughter.  New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013.  ISBN: 9780545176620

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Jingle Dancer"



There are certain books that sing, that are perfect for reading aloud.  And I just found a new (to me) book to add to my collection!

In Cynthia Leitich Smith’s debut picture book, Jingle Dancer, young Jenna wants to be like her Grandma Wolfe and dance at the powwow.  She is learning the steps, but does not have time to order the tin to make her jingles.  Rather than go without, Jenna has an idea.  While visiting friends and family, Jenna asks three women if she may borrow a line of jingles for her dress.  Finally, she borrows the last required line from Grandma Wolfe herself.  At the powwow, Jenna jingle danced for her friends and family who helped her.

One of my first criterions for selecting a picture book is, “How does it read?”  Reading a book silently to yourself is very different from performing a book for an audience, no matter how large or small.  A good picture book must have rhythm.  Jingle Dancer has rhythm.  A good picture book must come to life.  Jingle Dancer is lively.  Smith’s use of language is musical.  She repeats onomatopoeic words like “Tink, tink, tink, tink” for the sound of the jingles on the dresses and “Brum, brum, brum, brum” for the sound of the drums at the powwow.  Jingle Dancer is also written like an oral story.  Transitional phrases like “As Moon kissed Sun good night” give the reader or listening a feeling they are experiencing a story that has been told many times before.

Jingle Dancer is also a valuable book.  It features native characters, of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Ojibway, in a positive, non-stereotypical fashion.  In short, they are regular people, not cultural stand-ins.  They are a grandmother who loves her granddaughter (“Grandma Wolfe, who warmed like Sun.”), a neighbor selling food at a gathering (“Once again, Jenna rolled dough, and Mrs. Scott fried it.”) and a family member, a lawyer, preparing for a big case (“Once again, Jenna helped Elizabeth carry in her files.”).  The characters in Smith’s book are all female, relatable and affirmative representations.

A short, but detailed Author’s Note with accompanying glossary rounds out the book.  In it, Smith describes origins of the jingle dancer, and the significance of the dance, the materials and the number four (the story mentions that Jenna’s dress “needed four rows of jingles.”).  Illustrations throughout by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu bring to life these cultural details in vibrant watercolors.

Publishers Weekly noted Smith’s use of language, saying Smith “consciously evokes legend”.  The review also credits the illustrators with the “easy integration of Native and standard furnishings and clothing gracefully complement Smith's heartening portrait of a harmonious meshing of old and new.”  Jingle Dancer was a recommended book for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Texas Reading Club.

The first thing I wanted to do after reading Jingle Dancer, was to see a jingle dance for myself.  Thank internet for YouTube!  A quick search yielded several good results.  When the time comes that I will be able to share this book with my patrons, I would love to show them a video of a real jingle dance as well.  Cynthia Leitich Smith thankfully has one of the best author sites on the internet (http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/), so interested readers, listeners or educations have plenty to find and explore.  Smith offers teaching guides, reader’s theater scripts and more for a variety of her books.  Her website is a veritable playground!

For readers looking for more books in which to dive, they couldn’t look in a better direction than towards the work of Cree-Metis author/illustrator Julie Flett.  This time of year is especially ripe for her picture books Wild Berries (no pun intended) and Owls See Clearly at Night.  Both books incorporate native languages (Cree and Michif) and are beautiful to look at.  Wonderful books for bedtime.

Smith, Cynthia Leitich.  Jingle Dancer.  Illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu.  New York: Morrow Junior Books, 2000.  ISBN: 9780688162412