CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 1 . . . . September 8, 2017
From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea opens on an otherworldly landscape, a bird with antlers flying across the face of the sun while a rabbit with a fish tail skitters down a path toward a little blue house. The narrative describes the birth of a magical child named Miu Lan, with no fixed form; a child who can be whatever and whoever they want to be: "they were born when both the moon and the sun were in the sky, so the baby couldn't decide what to be. boy or girl? bird or fish? cat or rabbit? tree or star?" The fluidity of the child's form gives rise to some intriguing illustrations by Wai Yant Li and Kai Yun Ching. The combination of words and images creates a magical space of exploration about gender and identity, difference and acceptance. The execution of this examination, however, is not without its flaws.
Kai Cheng Thom engages in some experimental written form, including a lack of capitalization throughout, leading to a feeling of incomplete or fragmented sentences, along with some awkward punctuation. I am not entirely certain of the intent or efficacy of this particular style in a book for young children. That being said, I think the illustrations really do bring out the messages spelled out in the text.
I am also somewhat concerned about the ultimate message of the text. Although the ultimate message appears to be one of acceptance and learning to value difference (discussed through a series of sometimes overly didactic statements), the last few pages give the impression that the other children are suddenly tolerating Miu Lan because of their ability to fly and sparkle, rather than accepting Miu Lan as a person. It may seem obvious to an adult reader; however, younger children without critical reading skills are just as likely to see the message as being that one needs to be special in some way in order to be accepted.
In the end, I think the prevailing concept of the book is encouraging and necessary, though the execution is ultimately a bit awkward. An important book, for sure, but perhaps one that would have been better suited for a different age range or format, considering the stylistic choices in this current picture book style.
Recommended with Reservations.
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies (SFU) and is also a graduate of the MA in Children's Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.