Sharing Asian traditions with young readers
Just in time for the Chinese New Year, critically acclaimed author and illustrator Grace Lin brings us a heartwarming story of what it means to be Chinese and American in her new book, Year of the Dog. In this autobiographical novel, Lin gives young readers a glimpse of a year in her own young life in 1982: of finding friends, dealing with racism, learning her true talents and understanding her heritage.
Raised in upstate New York, Lin and her family were among very few Asian Americans in their small town. As a result, she had a hard time learning to appreciate her cultural traditions. "While we were growing up, there were very few books about Asian Americans," Lin says from her home near Boston. "We had a book about five Chinese brothers and then Riki Tiki Tavi, but that was about it."
Having little reference to Asian heritage in her school life affected Lin in many ways. "Most of the time, I ignored the fact that racism existed and I spent much of my time trying to forget that I was Asian," the author says. "When someone would point it out to me, it was like a slap in the face." She recalls such a time in the book, when she was excited to try out for the part of Dorothy in her school's production of The Wizard of Oz. Just before the audition, one of her girlfriends told her, "You can't be Dorothy. Dorothy's not Chinese." "Suddenly the world went silent," Lin writes, "Like a melting icicle, my dream of being Dorothy fell and shattered on the ground."
In keeping with Chinese tradition, Lin's fictionalized portrait of her experiences begins not on January 1, but with the first day of the Chinese New Year, in this case, the Year of the Dog. "You know how they say a dog is a man's best friend? Well, in the Year of the Dog, you find your best friends," Lin writes "Since dogs are also honest and sincere, it's [also] a good year to find yourself."
Lin's character manages to accomplish both goals. First, she meets her best friend, known in the book as Melody, the only other Asian-American girl in her class. Melody teaches the author that it's okay to be a little different from everyone else—and that it can even be fun. In real life, that same best friend, Alvina Ling, later went on to edit children's books, and in a wonderful turn of events, eventually became Lin's editor for this book.
Also during the Year of the Dog, Lin finds her true calling: to write and illustrate books. With the end of the year drawing near—and much self-pressure to find her path in life—Lin enters a school-sponsored writing and illustrating contest, and wins."I was crazy about books and I used to make books for every project we had to do in school," Lin recalls. "It was the first time I realized that you could actually do this as a job." Later, Lin took her love for books to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied children's book illustration and ultimately found an editor who prompted her to write stories about her drawings. "From then, I started writing like crazy to make up stories to go with my drawings." Soon after, her first book, The Ugly Vegetables, was born.
To date, Lin has written seven books, illustrated 10 others and has seven yet in the works—most of which are inspired by her Chinese-American heritage. Now that there are many more Asian-themed books on the market, several of which have been written or illustrated by Lin herself, the author hopes that other children won't have to face the issues she did. "With the Asian books, I'm inspired to study and learn more about my cultural traditions," says Lin, "and, hopefully, put the kinds of books out there that I would have wanted to read as a child."
Sharing Asian traditions is only a portion of Lin's incredible work. She is also dedicated to a project called "Robert's Snow," a fundraising program that began after her husband Robert was diagnosed with bone cancer. Lin asked 200 other children's book illustrators to create original art on wooden snowflake shapes, which were then auctioned off. The results were overwhelming—they raised more than $100,000—with all of the proceeds going to cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The original snowflakes were so popular that Lin had the artwork published in a book called Robert's Snowflakes, the proceeds of which have also gone to the Institute. This year, the amazing and tireless author has again convinced more book illustrators to contribute to the cause. The Robert's Snow 2005 snowflakes can be viewed at www.robertssnow.com, and with any luck, this new Year of the Dog (2006) will be just as lucky as the author's first.
Heidi Henneman writes from New York City.