Flash Review: The Weight of our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

By Maureen Tai, 3 October 2022

The place is Kuala Lumpur. The year is 1969. A Paul Newman movie is playing at the Rex cinema and the Beatles are big. Melati is a 16-year-old Malay schoolgirl whose recently-widowed mother, Salmah, works as a nurse in a hospital. To Melati, Paul McCartney is the best Paul in the world. Her best friend Safiyah begs to differ. These are the normal, comforting parts of the opening scenes in older teen/young adult novel, The Weight of our Sky (ages 12 and up). What is less usual is how Melati constantly taps her fingers and desperately counts in threes. What is more disquieting are the visions that persistently fill Melati’s head: graphic, gory, uninvited images of Salmah being killed in any number of violent ways. What is grippingly page-turning is the story of Melati’s separation from, and search for, her mother during the Chinese-Malay riots that plunged the newly-independent Malaysia into bloodshed and chaos on 13 May 1969.

The significance of Alkaf’s debut novel is not just the emergence of an exciting, compelling voice in traditional children’s publishing but the prominent feature – I think, for the first time – of Malaysian history, culture and language in a children’s book published by a large, Western publisher. Malay and Chinese words are not italicised. There is no glossary. Just as any book from the US or UK appears to readers in Asia without an explanation of what a snickerdoodle is or how snow angels are made, this unabashedly Malaysian story stands on its own. Without apology and without footnotes, the strong, convincing storytelling an authentic, important and welcome contribution to diversity in contemporary children’s literature. We look forward to hearing more from Alkaf in the years to come.

Double Review: Bad Sister by Charise Mericle Harper & illustrated by Rory Lucey; Smaller Sister by Maggie Edkins Willis

By Ben & Maureen Tai, 15 August 2022

During our annual summer visit to Toronto – our first in three years – my kids and I stopped by Little Island Comics, our favourite independent bookshop in the city for children’s comics and graphic novels. Coming from book-starved Hong Kong, we were giddy with excitement and hardly able to restrain ourselves from carrying armfuls of new finds to the cashier’s counter. As I added Smaller Sister (ages 10+), a graphic novel by Maggie Edkins Willis to my stack, I was heartened and pleasantly surprised to see an unfamiliar title, Bad Sister (ages 8+), tucked in among my tween son’s pile (yes, boys are NOT always put off by books about girls).

Both books are about the uniquely multi-layered and complicated relationship between siblings, one told from the point of view of Lucy, the well-meaning, hapless younger sister in Smaller Sister, and the other, from the point of view of Charise, the energetic, cat-loving and inexplicably mean older sister in Bad Sister. I chat with Ben to get his take on these two engrossing sisterly reads.

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Flash Review: The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

By Maureen Tai, 10 April 2022

The Legend of Auntie Po (ages 11+) is a brilliantly imaginative, sweet and tenderly hopeful graphic novel about a 13-year-old cook and her coming-of-age in a Sierra Nevada logging camp. The year is 1885. Despite being born in America, Mei’s Chinese ancestry guarantees that she is doomed to be an outsider and to suffer the same hardships in life as her principled, hard-working and ancestor-worshipping father. At least, that’s what Mei herself believes until the day Auntie Po Pan Yin, the god of her made-up stories appears before her for real! Accompanied by Pei Pei, her trusty, adorable blue buffalo, Auntie Po is the infamous mother of all loggers, taller than the tallest trees in the forest, a gigantic god with her grey hair in a grandmotherly bun. As Mei grapples with fledgling romantic feelings for her best friend Bee, witnesses racist abuse meted out to her fellow countrymen, and endures a tragedy that befalls her logging crew, will Auntie Po and Pei Pei come to their rescue? This multi-layered and multi-faceted read marries myth with legend, historical fact with fiction, and acceptance with racism, showing that in the end, love always triumphs as do our gods whom we can’t always see. P.S. You don’t have to know about Paul Bunyan to appreciate this book. I didn’t, and still don’t.

Flash Review: Where The Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

By Maureen Tai, 9 January 2022

In the middle-grade realistic fiction novel, Where the Watermelons Grow (ages 10+), twelve-year-old Della bears the weight of the world on her shoulders. Pest infestations and an unseasonal, prolonged drought are causing the crops on her father’s farm – including their legendary watermelons – to wither and die. Della’s baby sister, Mylie – aptly christened “a pistol” by Miss Lorena, a kindly newcomer to the family’s small North Carolina town – is a handful, and then some. But by far, the young girl’s biggest worry is that her beloved Mama’s schizophrenia is back, and boy, is it back with a vengence.

With evocative and unflinchingly honest prose, Baldwin tells the heart-rending story of a girl desperate to find a solution to a very grown-up problem, all by herself. None of the complicated emotions – sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety – that come from having a parent with a mental illness are downplayed, none of the challenges sugar-coated. Ultimately, our charming and likeable heroine learns how to better carry her burdens, realising that there are times when you need a little help from family and friends, some poetry from Emily Dickinson, and perhaps, just perhaps, a touch of bee-honey magic.

Unusual for this genre, but similar to some other middle-grade books we have previously reviewed such as the breathtaking Wolf Hollow, the story doesn’t end in tidy, magical, Disney-esque fashion. For me, this is where the real strength of the storytelling lies: in the ability to paint a vivid, realistic and compelling picture for younger readers that is hopeful as it is bleak, and healing as it is heartbreaking.