The Year of the Rat
By Grace Lin
Little Brown and Company
On shelves now
Think of the great themes found in children’s literature. The new kid in class/on the block/in the family. One’s relationship with one’s parents. And, of course, friendship. Friendship binds children’s literature together. Series books thrive on it. Think of The Baby-Sitters Club, Sweet Valley High, or any of their modern incarnations. Classic children’s literature used friendship as a focus as well. The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace are one of the finest examples of this, and it’s hard to find a modern day equivalent to Lovelace’s throne. Think hard now… how many chapter books can you think of that have that same balance of sweetness, family, love, and friends in a perfect little package with a classic kind of feel? "Classic", in the sense that it’s a book that will age well and be beloved for generations. Few books or series fit the bill, but one definitely sticks out in my mind. Grace Lin’s semi-autobiographical stories of Pacy and her life in New Hartford contain just the right balance of sweetness and story. Without ever becoming trite or saccharine, Lin hits gold yet again with The Year of the Rat, the sequel to her justly applauded (and popular) The Year of the Dog.
The start of the New Year is supposed to be a time of happiness and anticipation. But the fact that this Chinese New Year is The Year of the Rat means that there are also changes afoot. For Pacy, that means learning that her best friend Melody is going to be moving away soon. Unhappy but unable to do anything about it, Pacy and Melody vow to keep in touch. Still, it’s hard knowing that Melody will never finish her square on the class quilt. It’s even harder to see a new Chinese family move into her best friend’s old home, particularly when their boy (her age) doesn’t understand English. Still, there’s nothing to say that change is all bad. This is the year that Pacy gets to participate in a wedding and show off her artistic talents. It’s also a time when she learns to confront her friends about their prejudices and strengthen her own determination to become a writer. Not every good year is an easy one.
The test of any sequel is in its necessity. Did the previous book really need more stories? In her Author’s Note at the end, Lin explains her reasoning for continuing Pacy’s story. "Would I have loved Anne of Anne of Green Gables as much if I had only gotten to know her through only one book?" Some stories are meant to continue and some characters have to given the chance to grow. Pacy is not the same girl in this book as she was in The Year of the Dog. She has had to grow up a little. This book isn’t a recap of her old dreams and plans, but is instead a slightly older tale of dealing with change, both pleasant and unpleasant. If she continues at this rate, readers may be lucky enough to watch Pacy as she grows up through the years. It might take some doing, but I have confidence that Grace Lin is up to the job.
Lots of little details ring true throughout this tale too. When Pacy first sees the new boy Dun-Wei she decides that there’s something a little off about him. "His pants were a little too short and his socks just seemed too white. His jacket matched brand-new sneakers and he carried a lunch box instead of a brown paper bag like everyone else did. These were just little things, but somehow, all these little wrong things made him stick out like a big mistake." No kid can read this without understanding what the author means. At the same time, she’s clever enough to make you sympathize with Dun-Wei even while her heroine attempts to treat him like everyone else does.
Now when I read the first Pacy story The Year of the Dog I was sitting on an airplane tarmac for about five hours, waiting to get off the ground. I was desperately hungry, reading children’s books to get my mind off of my growling stomach. Unfortunately, The Year of the Dog was precisely the wrong book to read for this purpose due to the fact that Grace Lin has the ability to conjure up tastes and odors out of thin air. If I was hungry when I picked up the book I was ravenous when I finished it. The real test with The Year of the Rat then was to see whether or not the food in this book seemed quite as yummy on a full stomach. I am happy to report then that "Dog" was no fluke. Right from the start Lin opens up with a full table of delicious delicacies ranging from delicate silver fish and "platters of pork stained the color of red wine" to noodles, duck, steamed buns, and dumplings. You could finish a ten course meal and still find yourself drooling when Lin brings her talents to the table.
I was also happy to see that the author decided to keep breaking up her book with lots of Pacy’s family’s stories. These are always interesting and some of them stayed with me long after I read the book. Her mother tells a tale of accidentally buying a can of cat food in the store thinking it was for people. Her cousin tells one of rescuing Pacy from her sister when she was just a baby. They’re little things, but they really make the rest of the narrative pop, highlighting moments and lessons without ever sounding intentional or preachy.
Lin’s books fall into the vanishing early chapter book category. With lots of small spot illustrations (created by Lin) and short chapters with relatively easy words, it’s the perfect gateway book into older reading. Kids reading them will get a kick out of Lin’s stories with The Year of the Rat a worthy follow-up to a great book. A must read for anyone inclined to discover the next great classic children’s book author.
On shelves now.
Professional Reviews: The Washington Post