Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai
Purchased from Barnes & Noble
**Illustrations in this book are black, grey and green, as seen above.
Illustrations below are missing the green. Please watch the book trailer for a more accurate representation of the illustrations AND FOR FUN!**
Fly on the Wall is the second book by Remy Lai and, just like Pie in the Sky, her superb debut middle grade illustrated novel, this book is layered (like and onion, not a cake) with a (sometimes hard to like) narrator who reveals new aspects of himself and his struggles with each page turn. Once again, Lai uses an idiom as the title of her book, morphing it as her characters reflect, learn and grow. Layered like an onion, it can be challenging to write about Lai’s work and do it justice without spinning in circles. With that in mind, I am going to start with the outer layer of Fly on the Wall and work my way in…
This Book Belongs to Henry Khoo: PRIVATE! KEEP OUT! – Fly on the Wall is written in a diary format that Lai employs subtly and brilliantly, allowing her to show readers visually how confusing the world can be when you are twelve-years old and not sure who you are and where you fit in the world. In addition to Henry’s illustrations, there are text messages (sent on the "WeTalk" platform), emails (sent via "geemail"), and blog comments ("taped" into the notebook). When Henry’s notebook goes missing half way through the novel, a handful of pages are written on airplane napkins. A photograph of a white paper napkin on a dark background with entries "written" on a them stands in for journal pages until Henry can buy a new notebook, which is noticeable for the graph pages as opposed to the lined pages from the original journal. Quiet and sheltered, Henry uses his notebook to express his thoughts and feelings in ways he can’t with family and friends, and also to plot and document his plan to fly halfway across the world by himself.
The greatest adventure everrr – As an adult (and Home Alone fan) I was curious to see if Lai could make Henry’s solo trip believable. She does! Of course, for adult readers, there has to be a little willing suspension of disbelief, but Lai creates enough mishaps and mistakes on Henry’s part and assumptions and oversights on the part of adults in the novel that it totally works and is a delight to see play out. While most of the Khoo family lives in Perth, Australia, Henry’s father lives and works in Singapore, with the family visiting him every school vacation. When their end of the school year trip is cancelled, Henry’s mother, sister and Popo (who teaches Henry Mandarin while they watch wuxia dramas together) have an endless number of reasons why Henry can’t travel alone to be with his father. But Henry is the "lone wanderer" from a wuxia drama and he is destined to meet a shifu (martial arts master), star in a montage that shows all his hard work, face off with his nemesis and, before the end, do something kind that will prove he has gained wisdom that is "much much deeper than KARATE CHOP YOUR WAY THROUGH LIFE!"
Henry’s path to proving he has gained wisdom begins with a deeper understanding of what caused the end of his once solid friendship with Phoebe that leads him down a path of questioning, reflection and ultimately, a better understanding of himself. As Henry "wanders," he finds himself in challenging social situations with other kids, the new environment giving him the perspective and courage to overcome his tendencies toward being a silent observer. Being in these new situations also leads Henry to revelations about the connection he is looking for with his similarly quiet father. Marking the appearance of his first armpit hair with a (hilarious) poem in his notebook, Henry wishes his dad were there so he could ask him questions that would "give us something to talk about with multiple long sentences." Realizing that these are the kind of questions he can’t ask during the weekly family video call, Henry writes, "Maybe all along, somewhere deep down in its wrinkles, my brain knew that I had to go on this adventure. Not just to gain wisdom from a shifu and prove my independence, but also to ask Dad these questions. Maybe I’ve always had some nuggets of wisdom inside me, but I just don’t know it. It’s like Maomi [the family dog] being surprised by his own fart."
Bao Bao, Fly on the Wall or Frog in the Well? – Henry tells readers that his family thinks he is a "WAH-WAH-WAH Baby," or, Mandarin, a bao bao. But maybe that’s because his mother and older sister, Jie, are "two hovering helicopters" who have turned him into a helipad. Most upsetting, though, is the thought that his father, who keeps asking Henry why he can’t make his own toast and blow on his own soup, might not even like him. When Henry finds his voice, although maybe not his best one, using skills learned in a Digital Arts for Kids class to create an anonymous online comic strip, he titles it (and himself) "Fly on the Wall." Henry is both a silent observer but, especially after Pheebs stops talking to him, Henry feels invisible and unsure of how make himself seen. Unfortunately, There, turning his observations of classmates, cafeteria food and the principal into humorous, if somewhat mean spirited comics, brings attracts negative attention, both from Principal Trang and commenters, one of whom uses the handle, "frog in the well." I love idioms, especially learning idioms from other countries and cultures, and was thrilled to be introduced to the Chinese idiom "frog in the well," or "frog under the coconut shell," in Malaysian, as Henry learns from a new friend. This idiom, which refers to a narrow minded person who does not see the world around them, does double duty in this novel, revealing a second, deeper meaning (and realization for Henry) at the end of the story.
Lai, who was born in Indonesia, grew up in Singapore and now lives in Australia, works expertly with dual meanings and multiple languages, blending her talents as a writer and an artist perfectly on the page with her very visual, metaphor rich writing and distinct, funny illustrations that temper the more serious moments. Lai’s hybrid language of words and pictures working in tandem beautifully expresses the emotions and experiences of her characters, making their journeys and growth more authentic. Henry explains himself initially, telling readers, "When people tell you enough times what you are, you start to believe them." By the end of the novel, he has a deeper understanding of himself and his actions gained from his own personal experiences, not from who his family tells him he is. Using an astute metaphor to explain how he now sees his silence as hindering him rather than helping him, Henry compares himself to a water filtration system project he created for science class, saying, "maybe my filter is too fine. It doesn’t let any dirt through. But, it doesn’t let any clean, cool water through either. And I’m left so very, very thirsty."
The conclusion of Fly on the Wall is deeply satisfying, with Henry finding his voice – a voice that allows him to practice being himself with his friends and family. And make his own breakfast!
May 26, 2021 at 01:02PM Tanya