Thanks for speaking with Paperbark blog, Remy.
Thank you for having me!
I was impressed and touched while reading Pie in the Sky (Walker Books Australia), your debut novel illustrated with comics about Jingwen, his younger brother Yanghao and their mother who move to Australia. You have shared intense feelings and experiences while keeping the story light enough for children to enjoy the reading experience.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the children’s literary community?
I moved to Brisbane last year and I’m still getting to know the children’s literary community here. I’m a member of SCBWI and Write Links. Both these organizations have regular meetings where I get to hang out with other writers and illustrators.
What is the significance of the title Pie in the Sky?
It is the name of the cake shop that Jingwen’s dad planned to open after migrating to Australia, except the dad didn’t make it. It’s also the perfect name for a parent who’s doing his best to give his children a better life and who is showing his children that you can reach for dreams that might seem impossible.
What role do cakes play in the story? Which is your favourite cake?
Jingwen is driven by his goal to bake all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky. He thinks that cakes are magic and will make everything all right.
My favorite cake changes, but right now, I have a craving for chiffon cake.
What other symbols have you used?
The main symbol used is probably cake. Jingwen realises at the end that life is a little like cake—it’s all about a balance of flavours. Even though life can throw salty things at you, there will also be the sweet moments that carry you through.
Another important symbol used has to do with aliens. Jingwen imagines that everyone who speaks English are aliens but later, he realises that he is the alien.
Jingwen’s experience of moving to a new country and not knowing the language is compounded by his feelings of shame and grief. Why have you given him such a heavy load to bear?
As much as it’s unfair and as much as we wish it
isn’t so, kids experience terrible things like loss and grief and shame. It’s important
not to shy away from those things when the story calls for it. Books and
stories help kids to see that they are not alone in experiencing those things.
And I did not start out purposely deciding to give my main character such a heavy load, but I guess that’s what writers do—we torture our characters. When I first wrote Pie in the Sky, I did not know what happened to Jingwen’s dad. I just knew that he didn’t get to migrate to Australia with them. As I wrote on, I discovered.
How have you shown Jingwen’s grief and shame?
The backstory about what happened between Jingwen and his dad is told in little snippets and we get to see the truth about why making the cakes of Pie in the Sky matters so much to him. When the readers realise the truth, then we understand why it’s so important for him to make all those cakes.
How did you decide which parts of the story to show as comics?
It has to do with deciding whether prose or images can more effectively carry a certain scene. Pacing also plays a role. Another reason to show a scene as comics is pure fun—some images are just so fun for me to draw.
Why have you incorporated the book The Little Prince into the story?
The Little Prince has themes that resonated with Pie in the Sky—about how life can be bittersweet. It also features two characters who are trying to find their way home.
In addition, I love The Little Prince. I still have the copy that my dad bought for me when I was about ten or eleven, which was a year or two after I started learning English. In the margins of that book, I wrote the meanings of words I didn’t know.
I don’t think that you’ve mentioned which country Jingwen and his family have emigrated from. Why is this?
When I was a kid and I emigrated, I hadn’t fully grasped the concept of countries. I understood “country” on a very superficial level, in that I needed a passport to get into another, and currencies and perhaps languages are different, but mostly I just thought in terms of back home and Singapore. Just two places. Because I am first and foremost writing for kids, because this story is so personal and influenced by my own experience, and because this story is told in first person point of view, I decided to trust how kid me saw the world, and to trust Jingwen’s voice.
If I’d written PIE IN THE SKY in third person POV, I might have stated their country of origin.
But maybe not. Because I also wanted a story where the cultural differences to do with immigration don’t take centre stage. Stating the country might inadvertently shepherd some adult readers into focusing on the cultural differences. The boys grew up in a pretty globalised city, in pretty liberal environments, so the culture shift really wasn’t that significant. They are economic migrants. There wasn’t any mortal danger to them in their home countries. Their parents simply wanted them to have more opportunities in life. Ultimately, the thing I remember the most when I migrated was missing my family.
I wanted readers to see the boys as kids first and foremost. Kids who happen to be immigrants. That was why, aside from the language barrier, I had Jingwen have problems that are not specific to immigrants. For example, the dad’s death was simply an accident. Nothing to do with migration.
What other books have you been reading and enjoying recently?
For junior fiction, I recently read Malamander by Thomas Taylor (which I LOVE), and I’m reading Stella the Unstoppable and the School Camp Kerfuffle by Richard Newsome.
I also read and loved Laura Dean
Keeps Breaking Up With Me, a YA graphic novel by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary
For adult fiction, I just read The Night Tiger by Yangtze Choo and I love it, and I’m looking forward to reading Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim.
Thank you for answering these questions, Remy. Pie in the Sky helps us understand and empathise with the experiences of children like Jingwen and many others.
Remy Lai’s website is https://remylai.com/index.html