Chinese Children's Novels and Picture Books by Grace Lin
Books for Children on Chinese Culture
As a parent and teacher, I'm always looking for good books which tell engaging stories that children love but also teach them about culture or different perspectives. Grace Lin is a master at teaching Chinese culture for kids in a readable, interesting way.
Her books would help Chinese American kids understand their culture better, but they also help non-Chinese kids to understand the complexities, beauty and wonder of Chinese culture. Because Grace Lin is herself Chinese American, her books help kids who have two cultures in their background to help sort through how that works out in their daily lives. Most of all, I think it is helpful that she makes being Chinese and Chinese Culture for kids accessible, interesting and fun.
Interview with Grace Lin
Review of Year of the Dog
"I love this book!" exclaimed my 9 year old daughter, Mollie, as she held outThe Year of the Dogto me. "You need to read this book, mom." I was curious. Although I've read books out loud to Mollie, I'd never had her tell me to read something she had read on her own. While eating dinner, I started reading this story of Pacy and her adventures in finding a friend, competing in the school science fair, getting the attention of a boy and deciding what story to write for a school project.
Pacy is an enchanting heroine of an ordinary story of growing up and discovering what is special about yourself. Although there are many details of life as a Chinese American and wonderful stories told by Pacy's parents and grandparents about life in China, The Year of the Dogis also very similar to the stories told by Beverly Cleary that I loved reading when I was growing up, those wonderful stories about Ramona and Beezus and their neighborhood. I wasn't surprised to find out when watching an interview with Grace Lin that she had loved those books too.
Grace Lin explaining how she started writing books with Asian characters
Review of The Year of the Rat
In The Year of the Dog, and its sequel, The Year of the Rat, Grace Lin has done a wonderful job of re-creating the experience of being a Chinese person in the United States. Even more importantly, she is just a wonderful and insightful writer who makes ordinary experiences of childhood (wondering what to do for the science fair, making friends, having friends move away and living with the eccentricities of family) vivid and memorable. I couldn't put these books down myself! What I especially enjoyed was the way in which the parents and grandparents in the story shared Chinese traditions and stories in a way which helps the children in the story to solve their problems and get a better perspective on something troubling them.
So many children's books try to get the parents out of the way, but parents and grandparents should also be seen as teachers and friends to children, since that is the way it is in real life. Grace Lin balances the needs of her characters to solve problems with the fact that they live in a family who wants to help them.
pictures from Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Review of Dumpling Days
We did not read Dumpling Days until several years after we had read the first two. My daughters were 11 and 13 when we stumbled across the book. Dumpling Days tells the story of Pacy and her family going to visit family in Taiwan. Our family had spent a summer in China a couple of years before we read the book and so Pacy's experiences were very real and vivid for us.
Grace Lin does a marvelous job in this story of describing the experience of Pacy in confronting her own mixed feeling about China, Chinese people and culture. Just as my kids loved some things about their Chinese trip and disliked others, Pacy learns to appreciate her parent's culture while still having mixed feelings about other parts of the trip. One lasting thing from this trip was that my kids and I had a terrible longing for the dumplings we'd had in China, and I've finally learned to make them myself!
Grace Lin and Chinese Culture
As much as I loved the Ramona books, I think that Grace Lin has created better stories because she has woven the stories of China and her Chinese relatives into the everyday life of an American kid. She has shown how the cultures and history of the past has relevance for each child and masterfully, she has made that culture and history accessible for even my adopted daughter to hold onto. As a mom who wants to give my adopted daughter her heritage, I am deeply grateful to Grace Lin for giving not only my two Chinese daughters a glimpse of how China and America intersect, but also my three non-adopted children. Chinese people are the world's largest ethnic and language group and American children need more ways to learn about this important trading partner.
Review: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
We started hunting for other books by Grace Lin and found her Newberry Award Winner, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. This time, I read the book aloud to my two nine year olds and their seven year old sister, Steffi. All of us could not wait for story time to hear the next installment of Minelli’s adventures in trying to help her desperately poor family have a better fortune. Just as Grace Lin beautifully intertwined the American and Chinese stories in her earlier novels, in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon she imaginatively intertwines classic Chinese tales she learned in childhood with her story of a family learning what is really important. The adventures Minli goes on are cliffhangers but the best part of the story is how Lin shows the characters learning to be more loving, thoughtful and thankful for what they have rather than sorry for what they don't have.
We have several books of Chinese fairy tales and those stories often have seemed strange to me when I read them, and not like the familiar European tales I have grown up with. I don't know if it is just the translations of the tales or whether it is just unfamiliarity with them, but I often have finished reading them and not completely understood the point. Therefore, I really appreciated the way in which Grace Lin was able to take characters and stories from Chinese folktales and weave them together into a story which makes me enjoy the Jade Dragon, the Old Man in the Moon, the red thread and other stories. Grace Lin's beautiful paintings are also a wonderful addition to the book. I'm looking forward to reading it again!
The Red Thread: an Adoption Tale
Although Grace Lin is not adopted, she obviously knows that adopted parents love her books. The Chinese story of the red thread which pulls people together when they are meant to be a family is often used by adoptive parents when telling the story of how their children came into their family. Grace uses this story in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and she explicitly uses this again in this picture book about adoption.
Many parents love how this book visually explains this story to their children. However, some parents don't like the way the book emphasizes the pain the parents feel as they are waiting for their children to come to them. I have many "how you got adopted books" and generally I don't read any of them without commenting as I go about how this book is like or unlike my girl's stories. For smaller children, you can skip the written text and make up your own story to the pictures, or just use the pictures as a way to start talking about your child's feelings about being adopted.
Books about the process of adoption are really an essential part of any adopted child's library, but one problem is that each family's adoption situation is different and sometimes the books don't reflect that family's situation. The Red Thread is definitely one that should be considered for your library, but you may want to look at the reviews on Amazon to decide if it fits your family
Grace Lin's Picture Books
After we had discovered Grace Lin's novels, I looked in my bookshelf and realized that we had several of her picture books. Like her novels, Grace Lin's picture books seek to make Chinese stories, holidays and culture accessible and interesting to English speakers.
Review: The Seven Chinese Sisters
The Seven Chinese Sisters is written by Kathy Tucker and illustrated by Grace Lin. The story is a re-telling of the Chinese story of The Seven Chinese Brothers, a story I remembered reading when I was growing up. However, Kathy Tucker's version is much funnier and less violent. The seven sisters each have a talent which allows them to outwit a dragon and rescue their littlest sister. Grace Lin's beautiful and simple illustrations in this book make it a pleasure to see as well as read. Just as the book re-writes Chinese legends, Lin's illustrations re-work traditional Chinese folk painting which uses simple lines and bright colors. There is a child-like quality to her drawings, which adds to the action of the book and makes them enjoyable to see.
Review: Thanking the Moon, Bringing in the New Year and Kite Flying
In these three picture books about Chinese holidays, Grace Lin uses the same style of folk painting to show a family celebrating these special events together. These books are easy readers with just one line of text per page, and often not a full sentence. As an artist/writer, in Kite Flying, Grace Lin is able to tell the story of the family making a kite together for the kite festival as much in her pictures as in the words. Like her novels, she wonderfully shows the fun families have together in both pictures and text.
In Thanking the Moon, younger sister, Mei-Mei, puts a pomelo peel on her head while setting out the holiday meal and laughs with mom while the older sister, Jia-Jia, brings the lanterns and the third sister pours tea. In a simple way, these books also introduce some Mandarin language as well as showing how these holidays are celebrated. Thanking the Moon shows a picnic with moon cakes, tea, fruit and cakes that the family eats by the light of the moon and glowing lanterns.
Bringing in the New Year pictures the family cleaning the house, setting out banners, making dumplings, getting new haircuts and wearing new clothes as they celebrate the New Year carrying lanterns, watching fireworks and seeing the dragon parade. Along with the words and pictures which illustrate each holiday, the end of each book has a two-page explanation of the Chinese holiday tradition and the cover pages have an assortment of items used during this celebration. I have frequently used these books when talking about Chinese Holidays with groups of children. For younger children, I read the text and for older ones I just use the illustrations to talk about the holiday.