FIC LAI (Reviewing “Pie in the Sky”)

“Pie in the Sky” by Remy Lai is what I like to call an “illustrated novel”. Living somewhere between a graphic novel and a typical novel, the book bounces back and forth between illustrations and comic-like storytelling and traditional novel text. Much like its other ‘illustrated novel’ counterparts like Libenson’s “Invisible Emmie” and Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, Lai’s “Pie in the Sky” is easily accessible to a middle grade reader, particularly the 5th or 6th grade reader, who I think the novel is perfect for.

11-year-old Jingwen feels like he’s landed on another planet after his family moves to Australia shortly after the death of his father. Feeling a bit like an alien, he struggles with learning English, making friends, and finding his own way through the grief he’s still living after his father’s death. Trying to fill the loneliness and sadness, Jingwen decides that he is going to bake all of the cakes his father was planning to have on the menu at the bakery he was planning on opening in Australia when they arrived. The only problem with the plan is that his mother, who works a late shift at a bakery, has forbidden Jingwen and his younger brother, Yanghao, from using the oven while she’s at work.

Jingwen decides that baking is more important than telling his mother lies and he and his brother hatch a plan to secretly bake the entire “Pie in the Sky” menu while their mother is at work. But as any lie does, things start to quickly get out of hand for Jingwen as he struggles to keep the cakes a secret from his mother.

3 Defects

  1. For a reader unaccustomed to jumping back and forth between traditional text and comic/graphic novel illustration, this may be difficult to read in some parts, as the illustrations are as important as the text is. While the layout is solid for MOST of the novel, there are a couple of passages where it is more difficult to make the transition back and forth and a reader may lose understanding.
  2. SMALL defect here, but our main character and almost all of the supporting characters of the same age in the story are male. I don’t think that this detracts at all from the story, but I could see how this might be a turn off for readers who are looking for a female protagonist or side-kick.
  3. I’m a little sad that we never really know where Jingwen’s home before Australia actually is. We, as readers, can make some guesses based on names and descriptions, but a part of me would have liked it explicitly stated.

3 Delights

  1. This book has a perfect balance of deep, heartfelt emotion and humor. Readers will resonate with Jingwen’s guilt, loneliness, confusion, frustration, and grief while at the same time have the opportunity to laugh at the bickering and humorous relationship between Jingwen and his younger brother, Yanghao. Lai juxtaposes the two sides to the story beautifully in the novel.
  2. The illustrations are beautifully simple. I especially enjoy when the illustrations are used for flashbacks to a time before Jingwen’s father’s death and their interaction together baking cakes. Characters are emotive in the illustrations, making it easy to decipher the deeper meaning within each picture.
  3. The story falls beautifully into the #OwnVoices category, as Lai emigrated to Australia from Singapore, where she grew up. The story doesn’t shy away from what it feels like to be “other” in a new country and it honestly and deeply discusses the immigrant experience.

Overall, this novel gets a 4.5 out of 5 stars of approval from me and is something that I would easily recommend to readers in grades 4 and up.

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