Henry Khoo’s family treats him like a baby. He’s not allowed to go anywhere without his sister/chaperone/bodyguard. His (former) best friend knows to expect his family’s mafia-style interrogation when Henry’s actually allowed to hang out at her house. And he definitely CAN’T take a journey halfway around the world all by himself!
But that’s exactly his plan. After his family’s annual trip to visit his father in Singapore is cancelled, Henry decides he doesn’t want to be cooped up at home with his overprotective family and BFF turned NRFF (Not Really Friend Forever). Plus, he’s hiding a your-life-is-over-if-you’re-caught secret: he’s the creator of an anonymous gossip cartoon, and he’s on the verge of getting caught. Determined to prove his independence and avoid punishment for his crimes, Henry embarks on the greatest adventure everrr. . . hoping it won’t turn into the greatest disaster ever.
I was provided an ARC of this book by the author; this does not influence my book review.
If you know me, then you’ll know that I loved Lai’s debut middle-grade book, Pie in the Sky, with my entire being. Pie in the Sky was a book that made me laugh with its warm yet incisive humour and made me sob my eyes out for its phenomenal portrayal of grief. Needless to say, Pie in the Sky is one of my favourite middle-grade books of all time – and you can thus imagine how excited I received a copy of Fly on the Wall from Remy herself.
Formatted like a diary, Fly on the Wall follows Henry Khoo, a Singaporean-Australian child who feels that his family treats him like a baby. To prove to his family, and to himself, that he isn’t the baby that they think he is, he plans and executes an elaborate plan to fly to Singapore to see his father. On top of that, he anonymously runs a gossip cartoon, and wants to escape punishment – if he can make it to Singapore, that is.
Similarly to Pie in the Sky, Fly on the Wall is outrageously funny. I found myself laughing so many -times, and there are so many gems that will catch you off guard. Best of all, the humour is written entirely for a young audience and are paired with these delightful illustrations that you can tell that Lai poured so much enthusiasm and love into them. According to Fly on the Wall, adults are just ancient dinosaurs who just don’t understand – but Lai and Henry do. I mean, read this quote that I wrote down, which had me laughing and sharing with my family (who loved the line too):
“… she went back to watching her wuxia dramas, which are storied in shiny plates from the Mesozoic era, called DVDs – Discs Viewed by Dinosaurs.”
The story in itself is simple and fun: we follow Henry Khoo as he goes on a grand adventure to Singapore and the adventure and shenanigans that he gets into are hilarious and so much fun. As well as an adventure, Fly on the Wall, is also a story about a lonely kid who receives so much attention but doesn’t feel understood by his family. And so he goes on this adventure to prove it to them that he isn’t a baby and that he is independent (and to also prove that he is deserving of love from his father) – and learns a thing or two about himself along the way.
But I think what really marvelled me was how Fly on the Wall is such a brilliant and courageous exploration of the ‘helicopter parent’ – parents who ‘hover’ or pay close attention to their children and their problems and experiences. Henry has helicopter parents – his mother walks him to school and his sister nags him constantly. Yet, I really appreciated the lens that the storytelling in Fly on the Wall offered – that the way that people perceive helicopter parents, particularly Asian helicopter parents, is often but one (and most often, very Western) way of viewing parenting. Fly on the Wall interrogates helicopter parenting – shows that it is suffocating, doesn’t really work the way it wants to, but it’s also, for better or for worse, a way to express and show love.
My favourite thing about Fly on the Wall, then, is how this story portrays a very different way love is expressed. (Side note, years ago, I gave a research presentation on the different ways that love is expressed; mostly because I was really salty when I told an old colleague that my parents never said ‘I love you’, to which she replied with ‘but how do you know they love you?’) In Fly on the Wall, we see how Henry observes a white family expressing love in direct ways and with affection. And even though this moment isn’t given as much weight as other moments, this really resonated with me. As a young person, like Henry, I observed how white parents interacted with their kid – and when you see kids receive praise and physical affection – it makes you feel starved; it makes you wonder, “don’t my parents love me if they don’t tell me that they do?” (and then I grew up and learned).
But what I love about Fly on the Wall is that these moments are so gentle and sensitive; it doesn’t say that there is a right way or wrong way to express love. Instead, the story empathises that the ways we express love is different (and this can be difficult for people to understand) and it empathises why some children might find this difference difficult to grapple with. So I love that Fly on the Wall and its gentle exploration of love. I love that it reconciles this in a satisfying and thoughtful way.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
Truly, Fly on the Wall is an exuberant and wonderful story that delves into Henry’s brilliant mind and takes us on a ride. This story has something for everyone – if you love a fun illustrated story that depicts Henry’s hilarious shenanigans and the trouble that he gets into where you can’t help but be charmed by him, you’ll love this. And if you love a story with a bit of depth, a bit of emotion, and a bit of heartache as a kid grapples with the love within his family, then you’ll love Fly on the Wall.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Singaporean-Australian boy travels to Singapore by himself to prove his independence to his family – and gets up to trouble and shenanigans along the way.
Perfect for: Readers who loved Pie in the Sky; readers who love a story that mixes humour with heartache; readers who want a story that explores different expressions of love.
Think twice if: You’re not a fan of illustrated stories and don’t like ‘silly’ stories.
Genre: middle-grade, contemporary
Trigger/content warning: parental neglect