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Review of the Day: Fly On the Wall by Remy Lai

Fly On the Wall
By Remy Lai
Henry Holt and Co. (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-1-250-31411-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves May 12th

Has the helicopter parent ever gotten its due? Which is to say, where is the great American children’s novel that picks apart helicopter parenting, examining it from every angle, explaining it, maybe even forgiving it a little, but still ultimately finding fault? I dunno, but I’ve got this Australian import over here that does the job just as well. I’m not sure if you’ve ever made the acquaintance of Remy Lai. If not, you’re in for a treat. Last year Lai wrote Pie in the Sky, an illustrated novel that won, amongst other things, the Sid Fleischman Award for humor in a children’s book. An interesting choice considering the degree to which that book was weighed down with a chunk of honest grief. I liked that book an awful lot, particularly the ways in which Lai incorporated her comic looking style with the text. Fly On the Wall, her latest book, has a similar look and feel to Pie but the tone could not be more different. Where Pie almost sank beneath the weight of its depression, Fly positively buzzes with energy and anxiety. Where Pie moved at a glacial pace between home, school, the store, and home, Fly runs, caterwauls, spies, sneaks, rides, and generally has a wonderful time. This is a book I can’t show my colleagues at work because my 8-year-old won’t let it out of her sight. A fairly high bit of praise, if I do say so myself.

Henry Khoo is a baby. At least, that’s what you’d presume if you watched the way he’s treated by his mom, older sister and Popo (grandma). To escape their suffocating love he has concocted “the greatest adventure everrr” wherein he will travel all by himself from Australia to Singapore to join his father for Spring break. Never mind that he has told literally no one, not even his dad, of this plan. Never mind that he’s never even picked out his own clothes, or used a house key, or hailed a cab a day of his life. This is more than just proving he’s like one of those lone wanderers in his grandma’s wuxia dramas. Henry has a former best friend to flee. He has an online web comic called Fly On the Wall that could get him suspended. And he has a mystery to solve, one that may reveal more than he expects about himself.

Read enough middle grade novels and their themes all just sort of run together. If the writing isn’t strong enough to distinguish the book from the pack, you could easily lump it in with similar books in your brain. And there was one theme in Fly on the Wall that technically I had seen before: Parents that love you but don’t just come on out and say it. This topic was covered a bit in fellow 2020 middle grade release Stand Up, Yumi Chung, but Fly doesn’t just run with this theme. It luxuriates in it. Henry suffers from a surfeit of love that is put into actions rather than words. His popo, mother, and older sister drown him in it while his father shows it with gifts and his salary. It takes Henry’s realization of the truth behind fellow classmate Tim Aditya’s life to understand that, “My family’s overprotectiveness is their way of showing they love me.” Even his quiet father simply saying that Henry has gotten tall when he hasn’t means, “he must like me.” Adults reading this book will also get, on some level, that when Henry points out that his dad is better at talking to older kids than younger ones, that’s a character note. There are tons of adults out there just like this guy, but you don’t often see them in children’s books.

Now as I mentioned before, like its predecessor Pie in the Sky, Fly is heavily illustrated. So much so that I’d say it straddles the line between “illustrated novel” and the “notebook novel” as typified by Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And in a new twist, there are two different art styles at work. The first is Lai’s familiar cartoony style. In the case of this book, you are supposed to be reading Henry’s notebook, so anything written therein contains his own sketches about the world. The second style is one that he learned in a class and that he uses for his Fly On the Wall posts. It’s a little hard to describe. The best way I can think is to call it similar to those old outsider “Red Meat” comics by Max Cannon. What’s neat is that Lai uses her storytelling prowess to make the art carry its own weight. Sure it’s a fun complement to the text, but there are emotional beats hidden in the cartoons. Take, for example, the transformation of Tim Aditya. For much of the book, Henry either depicts him as a mouse or (for his own reasons) a frog. It’s only when he comes to the realization that Tim has a life almost diametrically the opposite of Henry’s that the images of Tim become fully human.

Can I confess something to you? I reserved this for the end of the review because I don’t want it affecting the rest of what I wrote, but honestly? I think I like this book even more than Pie in the Sky. I know, I know, crazy, right? And it’s not even fair to make that kind of a comparison since Pie was dealing with a whole range of dark issues, like grief and displacement, whereas this book has helicopter parenting. Just the same, I absolutely loved the storytelling at work here. For example, Lai appears to be a big fan of callbacks, so elements you see at the beginning of the story (and that you don’t think about much at the time) pay off big time by the end. I just found myself in awe of not just how she made the story look, but the way in which she tied everything together. Henry goes on a personal journey that you believe. By the end, when he makes a personal sacrifice, you truly do believe that at that moment, under those circumstances, he would indeed do such a thing. He has to make a 180 on a lot of issues, and he does it honestly. Put simply, the writing in this book should be examined by fellow middle grade authors. Lai gets it right.

Kids love books where their fictional stand-ins enjoy a degree of independence they lack. No doubt there will be a concerned parent somewhere that flips out over the idea of a 12-year-old taking a plane ride by himself (even though it really is covered as legal in the Australia of this book). That pales in the face of the thousands (millions?) of kids that read this story and root for Henry from the get-go. His fellow overprotected equals will rally to his cause. And few kids would be able to pull off the con he has, so even the ones with a certain degree of freedom will thrill to the idea of fleeing the country under your own steam. Add in the copious humor (did I mention it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny?) and remarkable cathartic journey and you’ve got yourself a winner. Be careful with this book. It’s one of the rare titles that will appeal to a wide range of different kind of readers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

On shelves May 12th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.