From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is one of those children’s books that, when reading as a child, seems light and devoid of deeper meaning, though when reading as an adult is obviously charged by politics. The child-friendly mask to subdue this is brought on by a series of metaphors taking shape in the form of various animals – a classic feat of children’s fiction. As an undergrad, I encountered several books like this on a Children’s Literature course; re-reading these beloved texts of my childhood self as an adult was an experience almost like reading something for the first time.
The book pays homage to non-conforming gender identities through the motif of being “whatever you dream of” (a bird, a fish, a dog…). Our child character is an advocate for dressing up, taking on the form of varying creatures, and being undefinable.
boy or a girl? bird or a fish? cat or a rabbit? tree or a star? so the baby looked a little like everything. they looked VERY strange!
You’ll notice two things in this extract at the beginning of the book. The first, if like me you’re a grammar warrior, is the lack of capital letters at the start of sentences. I think I can forgive that considering the book is about non-conformity – even down to its sentence structure, so it appears. Second is the use of “they” as a pronoun. This is maintained throughout the book, and is only abandoned when using the character’s name, Miu Lan. Googling this name brought back a selection of images that fittingly showed men and women (even more amazingly they presented themselves in the order of female, male, female, and so forth…), emphasising that the name is gender neutral.
However, the story isn’t always so much about gender as it is about the reactions of other children to our “strange, magical child who was always changing”, along with the relationship between Miu Lan and their mother. There is no profound exploration of why Miu Lan chooses to dress certain ways or decides to become certain things for a day, instead Kai Cheng Thom wants us to focus on the acceptance, and initial lack of it, in response to the always-changing-child.
Miu Lan’s desire to constantly be in a state of alteration doesn’t change despite the isolation they face from other children at school. Nor does the mother’s love or message to be “whatever you dream of” change. As Miu Lan ventures into the plethora of identities available, their relationship with their mother grows stronger. Despite feeling “sad” about being isolated from forming friendships, Miu Lan still feels “loved”. In the end, it is the children causing Miu Lan’s sadness that changes. Initially hinging their behaviour on what is normal for boys and girls to do and play with – masculine identity on hopscotch tracings is a step too far – they soon see the advantage in Miu Lan’s approach to being.
Overcoming sadness and personal conflict is also a key feature of the story. In spite of loneliness and questioning oneself, Miu Lan continues to behave in a way that feels natural to them. Under pressure from the other children, Miu Lan’s originally happy and “free” state is jeopardised, and it is their mother’s unwavering love that restores happiness. The following extract is where Miu Lan’s confusion peaks, and the amalgamation of various traits from different animals all at once is beautifully illustrated to show Miu Lan take the shape of a something akin to a powerful, mythical creature.
“what are YOU supposed to BE?” said several children at once.
“I DON’T KNOW!” Miu Lan shouted.
and galloped out of the playground on horse’s hooves, swam through the stream with a fish’s tail, and soared up the hill on an eagle’s wings.
The enduring creativity of Miu Lan means that they never want to be “just one thing”. Presented with this story its clear that beyond gender, in all aspects of life, we should strive for promoting and accepting more than just one thing.
Exploration is what triumphs.