Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy

During my childhood, I lived and breathed books. Sadly, when I stumbled blindly through adolescence, very few of my beloved books could help me understand the intensity of my emotions. The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander proved an exception. As its beloved main characters of Taran and Eilonwy found their identity in adulthood, so I believed that I might too. While some books lose their magic over time,The Prydain Chronicles still enthrall me.

What makes The Prydain Chronicles exceptional? First, there’s the plot. One can’t read a single chapter without wondering what will happen next. Yet unlike many modern young adult fantasies, the series is not merely action without substance. The moments are carefully crafted. One won’t read far without gaining deep insights into people, places, and life itself. Indeed, every time I read The Prydain Chronicles, I feel as if I am growing up right along with Taran and Eilonwy. Speaking of which, most of the main characters are folks you’d likely identify and enjoy getting to meet. They are honorable, fallible, quirky, and complex. Then there are the sensory-laden descriptions. Nestled between battles and other dramas are details of unique individuals and beautiful (or harsh) landscapes. Like a bed that provides the perfect support, Alexander’s descriptions enhance The Prydain Chronicles by immersing one into its imaginary Wales-like world while also temporarily relieving one’s heart from the anxiety. Expect to spend a lot of time resisting the urge to skip ahead to know a character’s fate and have tissues ready because there are lots of joyous and tragic moments. Last, but just as essential, is the humor. Alexander creates moments, dialogs, and characters which will make you grin and chuckle. If my glowing accolades have yet to convince you that The Prydain Chronicles is a must-own set, continue on to read summaries and highlights of each of the five individual books.

THE BOOK OF THREE

Meet Taran. Like most of us, he dreams of a more adventurous life. He doesn’t want to tend vegetables or make horseshoes but instead dreams of galloping about on horses, flashing swords, and being a hero. Coll, charged with Taran’s education, tries to appease him by helping him become something practical: an Assistant Pig-Keeper. This title bestows upon Taran the responsibility of caring for their prophetic pig, Hen-Wen—which, incidentally, has been his responsibility long before he was given the title. At the moment he is arguing that point, Taran notices that the bees are fleeing. Next, the rooster and hens follow the bees. And before he can stop her, Hen Wen has burrowed under the fence of her pen and escaped. In plunging after Hen Wen, Taran is thrust into a battle of good against evil with such abundance of adventure his heart ought to feel content, but instead he is left yearning for the peace of his home Caer Dalben.

On his perilous journey, Taran meets Gwydion who saves him from the Horned King. Although Gwydion and a few other adults (including the aforementioned Coll) often seem like one-sided characters, being faithfully good and honorable and wise, they possess enough personality to feel like dear friends by the end of the series. One thing that astounds me about The Prydain Chronicles is how large of an ensemble Alexander not only introduces but makes memorable. While trying to keep up with Gwydion, Taran is assaulted by a wolfhound named Gurgi. The latter’s favorite phrases are “poor, tender head” and “crunchings and munchings”. Although initially Gurgi seems only out to gain food, he proves a faithful companion. As the companions proceed, they’re captured by the wicked queen Achren. Taran is rescued again, this time by a girl. Although Eilonwy resemble the liveliest of chatterboxes, she also proves herself a feisty companion. When Achren catches Eilonwy talking to Taran and tries to whip her, she escapes by biting Achren. Although his release wasn’t intentional, Fflewddur proves another valiant companion, despite his penchant to embellish the truth. At the moment he stretches the truth, one or more of his harp strings break, adding unforced comical relief to a tale fraught with danger and grief. Much later in their adventures, as troops are being rallied for battle, Taran also meets Doli. He’s a dwarf who keeps trying to turn invisible by holding his breath. Everyone in his family has the power but him, which makes him feel like an outcast. As I said above, Alexander’s characters are all ones with whom you’d likely identify and enjoy getting to meet.

THE BLACK CAULDRON

Cover of "The Black Cauldron (The Chronic...

Cover via Amazon

Trouble seems to follow Taran. That could be a good thing, given how much he seeks adventure. Yet the trouble he finds isn’t necessarily what he desires. One day while Taran is undertaking the dull task of washing Hen Wen, an arrogant stranger rides into Caer Dalben. The stranger demands Taran to run and tell his master that Prince Ellidyr has arrived. When Taran refuses, having his hands full with Hen-Wen, the prince leans down his horse, grabs Taran by his jacket, and hauls him across the yard. Fortunately, the incident mostly serves to damage Taran’s pride. Later, Taran gets himself in trouble while talking to Eilonwy. He asks her to gird him with a sword but ruins this sweet moment by explaining that he needs her help because she’s “the only girl in Caer Dalben”. Poor Taran! He’s in all this trouble but has yet to even leave with the council of men to battle against Annuvin.

Yes, the second book in The Prydain Chronicles is another epic tale. Normally, war stories are not my taste, but The Black Cauldron is about far more than battles and bloodshed. For example, there is what happens when Taran and his friends discover the location of the Black Cauldron. The group is under the leadership of Adoan. Each one debates whether to find Gywdion to tell him the news or to seek out the cauldron themselves and destroy it. The cauldron is magical, in that whenever a dead body is thrown into it, that body becomes a Cauldron Born under the service of evil. The Cauldron Born kill without mercy, but themselves cannot be killed. Naturally, the good side wants the cauldron destroyed. Adoan allows Taran to make the choice of what to do, which leads the group into the Marshes of Morva where grave choices await. The latter involves an opportunity on Taran’s part to gain unfathomable knowledge. Using it, he is able to guide his companions into unknown paths, sense impending danger, and know of the future. Yet is this how one really wants to gain wisdom? As I suggested above, one can’t read The Prydain Chronicles without thinking about life. Throughout the entire series, I never ceased to be impressed by how many gentle insights Alexander instilled into his terrific adventures.

THE CASTLE OF LLYR

The Castle of Llyr

The Castle of Llyr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So far I haven’t told you much about Eilonwy. Alexander prefaces The Castle of Llyr by stating that, “For each of us comes a time when we must be more than what we are. And this holds true for princesses as well as assistant pig-keepers.” You’d think that with The Castle of Llyr being focused on Eilonwy, and my being female, this book would be my favorite. Yet except for The High King, the tales are all seen from Taran’s viewpoint making The Castle of Llyr still a boy’s read. Second, for much of the time, the story centers around the attempts of her friends to protect her. You see, Achren has returned and is seeking revenge. Well, actually, it turns out that Eilonwy is the last princess of Llyr. She alone has the power to invoke the magic devices and potent spells of the House of Llyr. And so Achren actually is seeking Eilonwy so she can control that power and rule the Prydain kingdom. Third, although I love Eilonwy as much as the other major characters, in many ways Eilonwy fits the stereotype of girls in traditional fantasies. Her societal role is to dress up, chatter, cook, and serve men, but she rebels against it by wearing men’s garb, wielding swords, and demanding rights as an equal. In the sense that she refuses to become a respectable princess, Eilonwy serves as a role model. In other ways she doesn’t, for she regularly thrusts herself into the forefront as one of the guys. For all these reasons, The Castle of Llyr is not my favorite book.

Yet I still like it. For within its pages, we meet the Prince of Rhun. He reminds me of a younger version of the inept and impatient but honorable and likeable Taran. I enjoyed how easily vexed Prince Rhun could make Taran. When Rhun introduces himself, he realizes to his shame that he forgot to ask anyone’s name. Now he has to repeat his whole greeting. In telling about himself, Rhun proudly talks about how easy it is to command a voyage: “All I have to do is tell the sailors….” Thankfully, the sailors know how to do their job and quietly go about their tasks without paying heed to Rhun, who has no idea how a ship is really run. Unfortunately, his lack of knowledge doesn’t stop him from trying to take his hand at steering, any more than it once kept Taran from trying to make or brandish a sword. Under Rhun’s control, the ship lurches so violently that Taran is thrown against the bulwark where he receives a nasty bump on his head. Still, when Eilonwy disappears and is suspected of being in danger, Rhun is among the first to join the search party. Despite all impending doom, he refuses to turn back but vows to find her. Through Prince Rhun and other new characters, Alexander instills humor into a sometimes dark story.

TARAN WANDERER

Taran Wanderer

Taran Wanderer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now I reach my favorite book. Alexander dedicates it to “For Wanderers still journeying, for Wanderers still at rest.” More than any of the other books, this one makes me think of The Wizard of Oz with its routine introduction of new characters and settings. In this way, Alexander has found an ideal way to introduce readers to the varied landscapes of Prydain. Herein, you cannot help but fail to appreciate Alexander’s ease in handling descriptions.

  • Cantrev Cadiffor: “The countryside had long since changed from gray moors to green meadows and pleasantly wooded lands with farmholds nestled in the clearings.”
  • Caer Cadarn: “Unlike the palisaded strongholds of the cantrev lords, Smoit’s castle was a fortress with halls of hewn stone and iron-studded gates thick enough to withstand all attack.”
  • Hill Cantrevs: ” The farmstead Taran saw to be a stumble down cottage, whose walls of stone, delved from the surrounding fields, had partly fallen away…. In the midst of the high summits, hemmed in closely by thorny brush and scrub, the farm stood lorn and desolate.”
  • Free Commots: “This was the land of the free commots, of cottages clustering in loose circles, rimmed by cultivating fields and pastures.”

The place Taran most seeks however is the Mirror of Llunet, which can be found in the Llawgadarn. The significance of Its description, which I won’t reveal here, lies in what it reveals to Taran.

Like Dorothy, who in The Wizard of Oz seeks a way home, Taran wanders in search of his identity. Taran hopes to find that he is of a royal lineage, so that he might propose to Eilonwy whom he deeply loves. While seeking his lineage, he learns many truths:

  • The secret of luck is to sharpen one’s wit to use what falls into one’s hands.
  • Life is a forge. Metal is worthless till it’s shaped and tempered.
  • One’s lives and days intertwine; Wise is he who can see the pattern.
  • Nothing is ever lost, but comes back in one shape or another.

The most important truth, which I won’t reveal here, lies in what the Mirror of Llunet tells Taran about his parentage. When upon meeting the herdsman Craddoc, Taran learns that he might have finally found his father. What will his reaction reveal about Taran as a person? To find out, you must travel along with Taran on his journey in Taran Wanderer.

THE HIGH KING

In his author’s note to The High King, Alexander writes “Like the previous tales, this adventure can be read independently of others.” Nevertheless, he admits, l”ong-standing questions are resolved in this final book”. For that reason I recommend that you first read the rest of the set. In this way, you’ll feel the most fear when learning that Arawn, Death-Lord, has left his stronghold. You’ll also better understand there is no hope if the enchanted sword Drynwyn can’t be recovered. You see, as with The Last Battle in The Chronicles of Narnia, The High King is about the beginning of the end of Prydain as we and our beloved characters know it.

As such, Alexander took some liberties that he didn’t in his previous chronicles. For example, now and then, you’ll find a chapter which is from the viewpoint of a character other than Taran. I especially liked the tale of Kaw the crow, a longtime companion to Taran who seeks out Medwyn (protector of animals) after being mercilessly attacked by gwythaints. Prophecies and magic also play a stronger role. Hen Wen makes two incomprehensible prophecies before her “prophecy sticks” break beyond repair. By the way, Coll now takes his place among the war gang. Indeed, pretty much everyone we know (along with some more new characters) will be required to take a stand for or against evil. You’ll also find that with so many beloved characters on the battlefield, it’s harder to know who will live and who will die. If you haven’t gotten yourself a box of tissues by now, I urge you to reconsider. Although I made it through the first four books unscathed, I felt heartbroken and more than a bit teary-eyed at some of the choices Alexander made in The High King. Yet I loved rereading it and the whole series enough that you can bet that I’ll pick them up again several more times in my lifetime.

The Chronicles of Prydain

The Chronicles of Prydain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

P.S. Christian artist Twila Paris composed a song “The Child Inside of You,” inspired by The Prydain Chronicles. My husband and I selected it as the solo sung at our wedding.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Time to resume my posting routine!

The past two weeks, I’ve been happily rediscovering The Pydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Expect a review of the series on Saturday.

I’ve been collecting biographical notes on Lloyd Alexander. Because I missed posting yesterday, I’ll run my four author teasers right through until Saturday. Next week, I’ll start surprising you again with a mix of mid-week news, questions, or quick reviews.

Regards my biographical notes, I’m changing up their structure. In school, my fourth-grade students just finished writing biographies. They divided their notes into four categories: childhood, education and jobs, accomplishments, and other interesting facts. That seems like a good format to follow. So, from now on, I’ll post author info according to those categories with a couple differences. Because these are authors, I’ll focus on their writing life instead of their general accomplishments. Also, my interesting facts will center on info about the author’s books and perhaps include links to long interviews.

Signature of American author Lloyd Alexander (...

Without further ado, let me turn to Lloyd Alexander. Him being one of my favorite authors, it was especially fun to research his life. A stockbroker’s son, Alexander was born in January of 1924. He grew up in the western suburbs of Drexel Hill in Philadelphia, which I had forgotten. I read a biography of him years ago but because his Prydain Chronicles are entrenched in Welsh mythology, I tricked myself into remembering him as being British.

Although his parents read mostly newspapers, the family had lots of books. According to a quote in the Washington Post article “Lloyd Alexander: Fantasy and Adventure Writer,” his parents bought books at the Salvation Army to fill up empty shelves. As for what books Alexander most enjoyed, like me, he felt that he’d need a book to list them all. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with his books that he loved Arthurian legends and world myths. To my delight, he also loved an unabridged dictionary.

Map created with 3DEM from SRTM (http://dds.cr...

Map created with 3DEM from SRTM
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

EDUCATION & JOBS

Finding pleasure in reading classics, Alexander vowed in high school to be a writer. Although he had no idea how to proceed, he did his best to educate himself. First though he had to appease his horrified parents, who urged him to pursue a more practical job. Alexander accepted a bank messenger job, despite having to use his fingers to add. When he could finally afford it, he attended a local college. He stayed only for one term. Dissatisfied with not having learned enough to be a writer, Alexander joined the army believing that the adventure might better serve his writing education.

The United States had already entered World War II. Alexander was shipped to Texas where he served as an artilleryman, a cymbal player in the band, an organist in the post chapel, and a first-aid man. Eventually, he was assigned to a military intelligence center in Maryland. There he trained as a member of a combat team to be parachuted into France to work with the Resistance, but instead the team ended up sailing to Wales to finish their training. Years later, Alexander drew on the beauty of Wales to create the enchanted kingdom of Pyrdain.

After World War II, Alexander was discharged to attend the University of Paris. There, he married and for a while felt content living abroad. Yet he grew to feel that if he were to write anything worthwhile, he’d have to be closer to his own roots. With his wife, Alexander returned to Philadelphia where he earned a living working for a small magazine. On the side, he wrote novel after novel. Alexander experienced seven years of constant rejection before his first novel was at last published. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about his life as a writer.

WRITING LIFE

Alexander didn’t start out a children’s writer. Instead, he wrote for adults about subjects he knew well, including his wife (“Janine Is French”) and cats (“My Five Tigers”).

After ten years of writing for adults, Alexander turned to writing for young people. He called it, “the most creative and liberating experience of my life. I was able to express my own deepest feelings far more than I ever could when writing for adults.”

Alexander relied on extensive outlines. Although those outlines regularly changed, they served as a blueprint and gave him some sense of how small or big his project would be.

Despite this being a childhood love, Alexander also didn’t start out being a fantasy writer. While doing historical research for Time Cat, he stumbled across Welsh mythology and enjoyed remembering all the hero tales, games, and imaginings of my childhood. The material inspired him to write his Newbery award-winning fantasy series The Prydain Chronicles.

Regarding fantasy, Alexander felt it served as great nourishment for imagination. He told Encountering Enchantment that he believed that imagination to be at the heart of everything we do. It leads people to ask “What if?” and helps develop intelligence. Alexander encouraged everyone to read fairy tales, and then read more, and to keep reading them. He believed that “If we nourish imagination, we nourish everything else.

MISCELLANY & INTERVIEWS

Time for other interesting facts! Did you know that Lloyd Alexander was one of the creators of the children’s literary magazine? He wrote over forty books, including his most famous work which I’ll review on Saturday, a set of five high fantasy novels called The Prydain Chronicles. Its conclusion The High King received the 1969 Newbery Medal.

Alexander played Mozart on his violin, drew cartoons, and fed squirrels in his back yard. In the Washington Post article “Lloyd Alexander: Fantasy and Adventure Writer, he admitted to a weakness for doughnuts and wafers before bedtime. His daughter, Madeline Khalil, died in 1990. He died two May 17, 2007, two weeks after the death of his wife of sixty-one years.

To learn more about Alexander’s life, read: Lloyd Alexander Interview Transcript.

To learn more about the creation of The Prydain Chronicles, read: Welsh Mythological Underpinnings of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Cycle.

Unless otherwise noted, the main source for the above information comes from: Kids Read: Lloyd Alexander.

Despite some faults, Do-It-Yourself Magic by Ruth Chew is a quick read about what two kids discover in a Build-Anything Kit that is marked down in price. If Do-It-Yourself Magic is representative of what Ruth Chew wrote, you should check out her books for the reluctant reader in your life.

The story starts out in a seemingly bland way. Rachel and Scott visit a discount store. Scott looks for a racing car model. The one he finds is too expensive, but his sister helps him find an affordable kit. If Ruth Chew were writing today, an editor would probably ask her to liven up the pace. For example, we don’t really need to know that the kids eat muffins after school for snacks, or that Rachel likes to do her homework on Friday afternoons, or what clothes they changed into before playtime. Moreover, some events are too convenient. When Rachel and Scott arrive at home, they discover that their parents are going out on a date. On the other, what better circumstances for discovering just what a Build-Anything Kit can do?

Some things are also never explained, but I’m not sure that’s a problem. Yes, I’d like to know why Rachel and Scott are so anxious to buy a damaged kit that can’t be returned. Since when though should magic need a reason? Rachel feels drawn to the box and, perhaps, that’s explanation enough. After all, do we really need to how Dorothy ends up being blown by a tornado to a magical land?

To get on with story, after Rachel and Scott sort through the contents of the box, they discover a plastic hammer that they initially hadn’t. And then it disappears! And then it reappears! On the handle is the word: SIZER. Soon they discover that the hammer changes the size of things. This gives Rachel the ability to shrink Scott to fit the stock race car, but also to increase the size of the car so that he can ride it outside. This leads to a few dangerous adventures, including one with a burglar. Soon all three of them are on an adventure inside a castle, where its citizens suspect Rachel of being a witch.

Despite its languid start, Do-It-Yourself Magic feels perfect for reluctant readers. High action is combined with an easy vocabulary. Moreover, there is a strong sense of moral values.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

This past October, I heard Grace Lin speak at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival. Her struggles as a multicultural author inspired me so much that I bought all her published juvenile books, which she signed for me. So, it’s with great delight I had the opportunity to interview her recently by email for Allison’s Book Bag.

Allison: Growing up you struggled to find balance between your cultural/ethnic identities.  Many of my students’ families are from other countries and face the same struggle.  What advice would you give to these students on finding balance?

Grace: Gosh, that’s hard because I do think it’s different for every person—each person has his or her own set of conflicts to experience. I guess the best thing would be to try to remember that for every problem your cultural heritage gives you, there is also a gift. It may not always be easy to see, but it’s there.

Allison: You write in your books that sometimes you were the only Asian girl in your school, and that this affected how you were treated and how you felt. What advice would you give to teachers who have students in similar situations? What can they do to help students of different races/cultures/needs feel more comfortable and more accepted?

Grace: Hmm, this is also a hard question to answer. I can only speak from my own experience; I am by no means an expert on child behavior. I do remember one specific teacher experience that was extremely helpful to me as a child; I wrote about it in The Year of the Dog. I never learned Chinese as a child and my classmates expected me to be able to read and speak it, one of them asking rather accusingly why I did not. My teacher spoke up and pointed out that all of the students in our class had ancestors from other countries and very few of them spoke any other language other than English. Some were German-American, some were Italian-American—yet they did not speak German or Italian. So, there should be no reason why I, as a Chinese-American, must be able to speak Chinese. I remember feeling very grateful, and in many ways, enlightened by my teacher’s words. It made me feel that, really, I was just like everyone else—even if it wasn’t as obvious.

Allison: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a mix of fantasy and Chinese folklore. What are your favorite Chinese folktales?

Grace: I have many favorite Chinese folktales, which is why I include them in my books! My favorite that I’ve never used in any of my books (yet) is the “Magic Paintbrush,” where a young boy is given a paintbrush and whatever he paints with it comes to life. Maybe I’ll use it in a book, someday!

Allison: If my readers wanted to broaden their reading of multicultural fiction for young people, what books would you recommend?

Grace: I would definitely encourage people to read these books. I think because these books are labeled “multicultural” many readers think the books are not for them, that it will be a story they won’t be able to relate to—and that’s not true at all!  And not only will readers find the stories relatable, they are also truly enjoyable. There is a great list of multicultural books to start of with here: http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/detailListBooks.asp?idBookLists=42

Of course, I hope readers try my books, like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon as well as the Pacy series. Off the above list, I highly recommend the Ruby Lu books and the picture books illustrated by Yumi Heo.

Allison: Although your family is from China, you grew up in the United States. A few years ago, you were able to visit China yourself. What was that experience like for you?

Grace: My parents are from Taiwan, which, depending on whom you talk to, is its own country or part of China. Regardless, there is definitely a very heavily Chinese-influenced culture. I’ve been to Taiwan many times, and it directly influenced my new novel, Dumpling Days, that comes out in January. That book is part of the Pacy series, and it is all about Pacy’s first trip to Taiwan.

I visited mainland China for the first time a few years ago and it was extremely interesting. Taiwan feels very modern, especially Taipei where my relatives live, but China was definitely more of a blend of very old and new. When we visited the ancient parts, the Asian folk and fairytales that I read in my youth came back to me—suddenly I could see the setting of where those stories could take place.  And this directly effected me—inspiring Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the book I am working on now, Starry River of the Sky.

Allison: In each of your chapter books, you write a lot about holidays. What is your favorite Chinese holiday? What is your favorite American holiday?

Grace: My favorite Chinese holiday is the Moon Festival. It’s kind of like the Asian equivalent of Thanksgiving. I even made a picture book about it—Thanking the Moon. I like it because it focuses on gratitude and quiet contemplation. My favorite American holiday is Christmas. I like all the crafts and decorations and the food!

Allison: What’s next?

Grace: As I mentioned, my novel Dumpling Days comes out in January. It continues Pacy’s story from The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat. This book follows Pacy on her summer vacation to Taiwan with her family. Like the prior books, it very much is based on my real life.  Dumpling Days is my parents’ favorite book of mine!

As that has been printing, I’ve been hard at work on the companion book to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  It’s called Starry River of the Sky and it comes out in October.  For those readers that know Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, this book is not a sequel—it doesn’t follow Minli’s story—but it takes place in the same world and there might be some other characters they recognize!

For more about Grace, check out her Frequently Asked Questions or Jama Rattigan’s In the Kitchen interview.

Anyone remember the B is for Betsy and E is for Eddie books by Carolyn Haywood? These were favorite chapter books of Grace Lin during her childhood. In many ways Lin’s three semi-autobiographical books for eight to twelve-year olds, Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days,” are similar to Haywood’s books. Lin and Haywood both wrote stories about average children and the ordinary events that took place in their lives at home, in school, and around the neighborhood. The main difference is that Lin has written about her experiences growing up Asian in a mainly Caucasian community. Lin has compared her reading of the Betsy and Eddie books to being wrapped in a warm hug. Despite our different ethnic backgrounds, Lin’s books feel that comfortable to me too.

The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat both start and end with Pacy’s family celebrating the Chinese New Year. The dominant theme of these two books is also related to the year being celebrated: The Year of the Dog is about finding new friends; The Year of the Rat symbolizes changes. The newest installment of the Pacy books, Dumpling Days, is different in being about Pacy’s trip to China with her family. Like the other two books, however, the clue to the theme of the book can be found in the title: No matter how bad Pacy’s day has been, dumplings can always brighten it. All three books are also about family, friendship, and love. Moreover, Grace Lin mixes in a lot of Chinese culture. The latter is often revealed through family stories, which enhance rather than interrupt the plots, and in the superstitions of various relatives.

THE YEAR OF THE DOG

Cover of "The Year of the Dog"

Cover of The Year of the Dog

In The Year of the Dog, Pacy makes a new friend. If you think this friendship theme is overdone, the twist is that before Melody’s family moves into the neighborhood Pacy has been the only Asian girl in school. The day Melody arrives at school, Pacy is lined up in the cafeteria as usual for lunch. The lunch lady initially refuses to serve Pacy because she thinks she’s just served her. That’s when Pacy discovers to her great delight that she’s no longer the only Asian around. If now you’re thinking instead that this is another book about prejudice, you’d be wrong. That is not to say she doesn’t sometimes encounter racism, as when she attends a Taiwanese-American Camp (TAC), the Asian girls call her “Twinkie” because Pacy can’t speak Chinese and so has been in their words “Americanized”. Mostly though, Year of the Dog is a fun mix of small and big moments in Pacy’s life with her family and friends. For example, upon the birth of their cousin Albert, Pacy and her two sisters (Lissy and Ki-ki) color eggs red. Older sister Lissy tells Pacy that not all Chinese babies get Red Egg parties: “You didn’t.” When Pacy asks why, Lissy says it’s probably because Pacy was a sick baby. When younger sister Ki-Ki explains that Pacy got sick from ammonia, the two try to rid the house of it—much to the amusement of Lissy. Another day, after Melody and Pacy become best friends, the two girls stuff themselves with children’s chewable vitamins because Melody’s family keeps only healthy food in the house. Then there is the school book contest. One day the librarian comes to their art class and announces a book contest, wherein the winning entry is to be published. Pacy discovers “herself” through the book contest: She decides to make books when she grows up!

THE YEAR OF THE RAT

In The Year of the Rat, one of the changes that Pacy faces is saying good-bye to Melody, whose family moves from New York to California. Yes, I know this can be a cliché. By removing a friend from the picture, an author is left with the ability to introduce new friends and hence new adventures. Remember, though, Grace Lin’s books are semi-autobiographical; Melody’s family is based on a real situation, which Lin weaves into her sweet and charming tale of family and friendship. In drawing upon her Asian heritage, she also ensures that her tales are unique. For example, one day the family heads off to Albany to visit Pacy’s cousin Max who is turning one. Presents are opened, platters of food are served, and then Uncle Clifford brings out the destiny plate. Each item placed on the plate symbolizes a different job. Whichever one Max picks is thought represent the job he will one day hold. True to what you might expect from a toddler, Max just wants to eat his cake. Maybe he’ll be a baker? One of my favorite and bittersweet moments in the book occurs when Pacy helps Melody pack. Melody is told she can’t take all her books with her and so must give half to Pacy. The girls struggle to pick who will get which books, until they hit upon a compromise. After Pacy is done with with a book, she’ll mail it back to Melody. In the aftermath of this plan, a funny incident happens that I’ll leave to you to find. As with The Year of the Dog, not everything is perky and light. Pacy continues to struggle to find balance in her mixed identity as American and Chinese, especially when her peers try to match her with a new Asian boy at school solely based on their common ethnic background. After being cautioned that writers and artists are typically poor, she also begins to explore the wisdom of her career choice.

DUMPLING DAYS

If you think that “dumplings can brighten your day” is lame for a theme, you might be right. For several chapters of Dumpling Days, I found myself wondering if it would be all about new sights, new food, and new relatives. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it is kind of like being awestruck by a movie simply because of its special effects. At some point, the glitter loses its sparkle. So as much as Lin made me desire to see China, and especially sample its delectable foods, I reached a point where I wanted Dumpling Days to be about something more than just Pacy’s trip to China. Eventually, a theme did emerge: identity. While in China, Pacy is introduced to Ghost Month. During this month, Chinese people make food or burn special money for ghosts to have in the spirit world. Throughout Pacy’s visit in China she encounters those who dislike her because she can’t speak Chinese and so compares herself to the forgotten or lost ghosts. Pacy comes to eventually realize that even her parents and relatives struggle with their identity or “ghosts” too. For example, Pacy’s mom (who grew up in China) feels sad after her purse is stolen—because pickpockets normally only target outsiders. Not everything in Dumping Days is gloomy and serious. There are plenty of fun moments such as when Uncle Clifford takes the sisters for a ride on his scooter. My favorite is when the girls are feeling cranky from jet lag, but perk up when they hear a chiming, jolly song which they mistake for the sound of the ice-cream truck. In China, the garbage truck plays music so that everyone knows when to throw out their garbage. Yet for all the festive and silly episodes in Dumpling Days, it remains the most reflective of Lin’s three semi-autobiographical books.

WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON

Cover of "Where the Mountain Meets the Mo...

Cover of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

The Year of the Dog, The Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days are all about a normal family without princesses or magic. In contrast, Lin’s Newbery Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a fantasy inspired by Chinese folklore. In the tradition of journey stories, this is about Minli, who goes on a trip to seek a solution to a problem. Her family work hard in the fields but are still poor. Minli seeks the Man of the Moon to ask how the family can change their fortune. As in The Wizard of Oz, Minli meets characters along the way who also need help from the Man of the Moon. Unlike in The Wizard of Oz, only one travels with her: a dragon who can’t fly. In what seems almost too conveniently like The Wizard of Oz, these two comrades encounter evil monkeys when trying to cross the woods to their destination. Other dangers are more original to Lin such as a poisonous tiger. I recognized two motifs from folklore: the disguised king and sacrificed children. Others such as the guardians of the city, the borrowed line, and the fruitless mountain may or may not be derived from Chinese tales with which I am less familiar. In any event, Lin has seamlessly blended various aspects of folklore into one beautiful story. Readers familiar with Lin’s aforementioned chapter books will appreciate that most chapters also contain a mini-story. Many of these are told by Minli’s father; others are told by those whom Minli meets on her way to find the Man of the Moon.  What makes Lin’s books so special are their themes of family, friendship, love, and heritage. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon has another theme, which is found in the answer to Minli’s question about how her family can change their fortune. I’ll leave it for you to discover.

My rating? Bag them: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?


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