I love cake. You probably love cake, too. For many of us, it’s just a dessert, but for 11-year-old Jingwen, cake is a connection to the culture he left behind in his old country. Cake is his voice when the language barrier silences him in his new home. And Jingwen believes that if he bakes enough, cake will become a connection to his late father. Cake is more than cake.
Jingwen is the protagonist of PIE IN THE SKY (Holt, 384 pp., $21.99; ages 8 to 11), Remy Lai’s heartfelt, funny and, of course, sweet debut middle-grade novel. Lai also did the excellent artwork — this is a highly illustrated (though not graphic) novel.
In his old country, Jingwen’s family owns a bakery featuring local treats like sesame balls and “steamed prosperity cupcakes.” In anticipation of emigrating to Australia, Jingwen’s father creates a new menu for the bakery he dreams of opening. It will be called the Pie in the Sky bakery and will feature flashy offerings like Nutella cream cake and rainbow cake. The new menu will be his father’s attempt to bridge the anticipated cultural divide and conquer the hearts and tastes of their new compatriots. But when his father suddenly dies, Jingwen, his annoying little brother, Yanghao, and their mother have to make the move without Dad.
As far as Jingwen is concerned, Australia might as well be Mars. It’s so different from his old home, and he can’t understand what the Martians — cleverly drawn by Lai as, yes, Martians — are saying. Their mother works long hours as an employee at a neighborhood bakery, and the boys are largely unsupervised. Friendless and isolated from his classmates by a lack of English, Jingwen turns to the familiar: baking. In order to combat his loneliness and remember his father, he decides to bake every cake from his father’s Pie in the Sky menu with the equally cake-obsessed Yanghao. But the brothers must keep their baking a secret from their mother, who has prohibited them from using the oven while she is at work.
My own recent family tree is filled with immigrants, people who hit the language barrier hard and had to find ways to get their voices back, and “Pie in the Sky” is aimed straight at my heart. But the book doesn’t just speak to those of us who are a step or two away from the immigrant experience. Lai also wonderfully captures the awkward experience of being a new kid at a new school. Every kid in middle school wonders: Am I weird, or is it everyone else? Are you the Martian or am I? Lai does a very effective job of putting us in the mind of a middle-schooler.
Her book is breezy, yet it takes a while to get its momentum. The early pages would have benefited from a quicker pace, but once Jingwen and Yanghao begin baking their clandestine sweets, the story takes off. The illustrations are so good that I would have enjoyed it if the book had contained even more art.
Lai’s delightful artwork blends seamlessly with the text. She often picks funny moments to illustrate, like Jingwen and Yao as zombies who prefer cake to brains. (Who doesn’t, right?) One of my favorite illustrated scenes is when Jingwen’s ever-growing list of Rules for Making Cakes catches fire while he’s trying to make caramel sauce. Lai’s illustrations of the flashback scenes of Jingwen baking with his father are moving and memorable.
In “Pie in the Sky,” Jingwen thinks baking cakes is the solution to his problems. However, he may need to set aside his mixing bowl and make a connection with the world outside his kitchen. Maybe cake is more than cake. But maybe, sometimes, it should just be dessert. As young readers will learn, sometimes the sweetest thing is to take a chance on making a human connection.