“Pie in the Sky” by Remy Lai is a beautifully crafted middle grade story about some very real issues, loss and feeling alone, that almost everyone, at every spectrum of socio-economic status, experiences. In this story, two brothers and their mother move to Australia after their father dies.
While their mama speaks English fairly well, and the younger brother picks it up quickly, Jingwen, the main character, explains to the reader in first person narrative that he feels like he’s on Mars. The illustrations serve several purposes in the story. They reflect what is going on in the story and the emotions of the characters, and at times, they actually move the story forward. Some illustrations feature Jingwen and his brothers on the bus they take to school with all the other riders looking like aliens and speaking a language that consists of shapes and squiggles, not letters.
Jingwen is also suffering from terrible guilt about the death of his father. This story comes out slowly over the course of the book. Jingwen’s father worked in the family bakery with his parents and Jingwen’s mom. They all worked long, hard hours, and Jingwen’s parents wanted a better life for their two boys. They encouraged the boys to work hard at their studies so they could do better than their parents did.
But Jingwen treasured the Sundays when he and his father, in their rare time together, baked fancy cakes. Their father planned to open a bakery in Australia called Pie in the Sky, and these fancy cakes would be sold at that bakery. When Jingwen’s father dies, his mother doesn’t have time to bake cakes with him. And now that they have moved to Australia and she is a single parent, she spends her days off cleaning their small apartment and making food for the week.
Jingwen is completely miserable at school, having no friends, not speaking enough English to understand more than a random few words, and having a terrible attitude. He sees Yanghao, his younger brother, making friends and doing well, and that makes him feel even more isolated and alone. He learns the word slow, written as “s l o w” to emphasize that it takes Jingwen longer to do many things in his new country, most importantly speak English and make friends.
His mother has too many burdens to make him feel that he can share his burdens with her. Jingwen remembers when he and his family would go to the beach occasionally. The illustration shows Jingwen giving his mother the seashells he collected and asking her to keep them in her pockets. He explains that her pockets would get so full and heavy that her skirt didn’t flutter in the wind. So when his mother asks him about school, he lies.
“As if she’s suddenly very heavy, she sinks farther into the sofa. I want to give her the seashells of trouble that are weighing down my pockets, but she’s already taken the ones in Yanghao’s and put them in hers. Adding any more might make her so heavy she’d fall through the seat. For now, I should try to carry my seashells in my own pockets.”
The metaphors throughout the story add an additional layer of beauty and understanding to how Lai shares Jingwen’s feelings of isolation and loss. When the “Martian” words on the page Jingwen is trying to read all dissolve into one word: s l o w, he manages to dispel that image by imagining all the cakes he and his father would talk about. Carrot cake with cream cheese topping, chocolate raspberry torte, blueberry cheesecake.
When one night the only way to get Yanghao to stop crying is to make one of the cakes from the recipe book, it makes the brothers laugh and smile. And Jingwen remembers the wonderful closeness he and his Papa had while making fancy cakes together. “Papa and me with big smiles on our faces, the smiles he said cakes always bring.”
So he and his brother begin to make cakes every night in secret after their mother goes to work at the bakery. But of course, there are problems, including a nosy neighbor and her cat, a burned table, smoke detectors, and other roadblocks on their cake-making journey.
Something that helps Jingwen in the learning process of reading English is the story of “The Little Prince” that his brother is reading. His brother writes definitions of difficult words on the margin of the pages, and Jingwen is so involved in the story, he MUST find out how it ends. So he looks up the words and struggles through the story and reads it to the very last page. And that’s what good books do, isn’t it? Good books demand that we read and read and read until we find out how it all ends.
This is a book that kids will love. Most middle grade readers love books with illustrations. And while this is no graphic novel, the graphics certainly add an additional dimension to the story that readers will love. Readers will enjoy seeing a main character who certainly has flaws and is far from perfect, but whose story is touching and heartbreakingly sad, and who triumphs in the end.
It’s a must-have for every school library, and it would be a wonderful choice to read at the beginning of the school year (or any time, actually) to talk about feelings and share students’ ideas about how to make new students feel welcome and how to understand the feelings of others. It’s certainly a wise choice for schools with a diverse student body — and isn’t that most schools in our very diverse and welcoming country? Perhaps Lai is able to share her messages so completely and movingly because they come from her heart. She shared in a post on CBC Diversity that, “As a kid, I migrated and had to learn English. Books became a lifesaver. Reading books in English was how I picked up the language. Even though I had to flip through the dictionary millions of times to understand all the words, I had to find out how all those stories ended.”
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s edition provided by the publisher, Henry Holt, for review purposes.