This time when you visit the Pond, the air smells… sweet? You follow your nose, and find Xiaolong by an… an oven? (You’re sure it wasn’t there before!)
When you call out to her, she turns around holding a bowl in one hand and whisking vigorously with her other.
“Hello friend!” she greets. “I just read this amazing book, which included a recipe! Isn’t that amazing? So I decided to bake this cake for you so we had afternoon tea while we talked about it, but it’s taking a big longer than I thought.”
When you offer to help her, she magics you an apron – just so you won’t get your clothes all dirty! You follow her instructions – you sift the flour, you add the water, you crack the eggs over, and she even lets you add the colouring too!
After the cake is done, you wait next to the oven, both you and Xiaolong giddy and excited for the cake to be finished. When the cake is finally done, Xiaolong magics it out of the oven – so none of you will get burnt! – and she gives you a slice.
“Well, now that we all have some food to eat,” says Xiaolong, helping herself to a slice as well, “let me tell you about an amazing book that I read, friend. It’s called Pie in the Sky…”
When eleven-year-old Jingwen moves to a new country, he feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he’s often stuck looking after his (extremely irritating) little brother, Yanghao.
To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she’s at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they’ll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.
I received a review copy from the author. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
When I discovered Pie in the Sky by chance and listed it as one of the books I was most excited to read in 2019, I had no idea – no idea – that I was about to read one of my favourite books ever. I say this with absolute honesty and with my whole heart: I thank all the stars in the sky, the fabric of the universe, and the chaos of life for aligning and allowing me to cross paths with Remy, the author of Pie in the Sky, who gave me an advanced reader’s copy of her incredible quiet book.
If you can’t tell, I absolutely loved Pie in the Sky. No – you know what? I don’t just love it. This is the seventh book that I have added to my ‘forever in my heart’ shelf on Goodreads, my ‘six out of five stars’ shelf, where the book does more than be just be a good read – it’s a book that touches my heart and understands my essence as a human being.
A RELATABLE STORY ABOUT MOVING TO A NEW COUNTRY
The story follows Jingwen and his younger brother, Yanghao, who move from China to Australia with their mother. Upon arriving to Australia, Jingwen notices that everything is a little different: he says he’s landed on Mars, everyone speaks Martian (or, as we know it, English), everyone looks a little different to him as well, and he doesn’t really understand what people are saying most of the time. Through Lai’s very own illustrations and Jingwen’s child-like insight and narrative, Lai brilliantly captures the feelings and perspective of a young child who has to adapt to a new place where everything is different and unfamiliar. Jingwen’s young and goofy narrative voice was delightful, and it was almost nostalgic reading this story – kids, especially immigrant kids, will easily relate to Jingwen’s narrative, and immigrant or diaspora adults may be reminded of what it was like to be a kid.
However, Lai does more than just show how Jingwen experiences the newness of Australia. As the story of Pie in the Sky develops, Jingwen’s perspective also develops when he meets new people, has some confronting interactions with others, and begins to see, with painful and heart-breaking awareness, that perhaps it isn’t everyone that’s different, but that, maybe, he is the one that’s different and that he’s the Martian. This turn of perspective really struck me, and I understood how Jingwen felt deeply – the feeling of your identity being shaken because you feel yourself no longer fitting and belonging. I understood Jingwen’s attempts to try and fit in by being more silent, to avoid others from catching on that he’s a Martian, and Pie in the Sky poignantly illustrates the emotional challenges of moving to a new country, particularly one where the main language spoken, is completely different.
AN EMOTIONAL PORTRAYAL OF LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE
Pie in the Sky may be the wholesome and charming read that its cover suggests, but in between the pages is a story that packs one emotional punch, especially with its exploration around language and belonging. For some people, learning a new language is as simple as that: learning a new language so you can add another to your repertoire. But for some, especially immigrant and diaspora individuals, learning a language can come with a lot of complex emotions that tie so deeply to identity, belonging, self-worth, family, obligation, fulfilment, and loneliness. How Lai portrays Jingwen’s emotional struggle with learning English was filled with frustration, feelings of inadequacy, and emotional. Although English is my first language, I empathised with Jingwen’s frustrations and mixed feelings in relation to the complex feelings I experience about learning Mandarin.
Furthermore, Pie in the Sky demonstrates the effects and implications of language barriers; how a limitation in understanding someone can limit the ability to make connections with others. Lai brilliantly portrays the struggle with expressing the complex thoughts in your mind with limited vocabulary. Pie in the Sky explores the impact of language barriers in a school context, and how limited language ability can lead to poor performance in class, particularly with unkind teachers, and the sheer work and effort that understanding a simple sentence can require. In addition, Lai takes this one step further and illustrates the strain of language barriers within the family; seeing one sibling progress in their language and feeling left behind can be tough, and I think Lai showed this excellently and accurately.
ULTIMATELY, ABOUT LOVE — EXPRESSED AS CAKES
Pie in the Sky and its brilliance is attributed to its holistic and multifaceted portrayal of a young child’s experience of moving to a new country, but what makes Pie in the Sky special and wonderful is that, at its core, it is a story about love. To cope with the loneliness of moving to a new country, Jingwen, alongside his brother Yanghao, decide to bake every cake from their late father’s intended menu of the café he was going to open in Australia. For Jingwen, baking cakes is a way to connect with his father and a way of preserve his memory. Thus the cakes that he bakes not only give him a sense of completeness, belonging, home, and love, but also provide a way for him to connect with his brother – and if that doesn’t pull at your heart strings, I don’t know what will.
To my surprise, Pie in the Sky is also about familial burden and the grief of losing a parent. These parts of the book moved me to tears. Throughout the story, Jingwen describes feeling immense heaviness, burden, responsibility, and guilt as seashells in his pockets weighing him down. Lai’s portrayal of grief and familial burden were incredibly subtle and so well-done, particularly when Jingwen decides to keep the ‘seashells’ to himself so his mother wouldn’t have to carry them. I loved this part, this portrayal of familial burden, of the story so much because I really related to it – it’s not simply feeling burdened by your family, but it’s giving and sharing the burdens with your family to ease the weight that they feel.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Wonderful, insightful, and a story full of heart and empathy, Pie in the Sky is an incredible middle grade story that will make you smile, make you laugh, and will make you cry. It was an absolute privilege and honour to have received this book from Remy, and I cannot wait to see what books she will share with the world next.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Chinese boy moves to Australia with his younger brother and mother decides to bake cakes to overcome his loneliness and the struggle of language barriers.
Perfect for: Readers who enjoy immigrant stories or want to see immigrant representation; readers who love a book that can make you laugh and cry; readers who want to enjoy a quiet but powerful middle-grade.
Think twice if: You’re not a fan of ‘child-like’ first person narratives.
Genre: middle grade contemporary
Trigger/content warning: death of parent, grief
This is my new favourite book! The last time I felt so strongly about a book was probably last year in June when I read Front Desk. I’m so happy and so grateful to Remy for providing me a copy of her incredible book. I’m going to treasure this book forever.
- What was your last favourite book?
- Do you like reading middle-grade novels? What are some of your favourites?
- Do you have any book recommendations where the main characters grappled with moving to a new country?