A little tale of adventure, mystery and curry puffs
March 30, 2021
When I think of a children’s novel, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the dawn of the second world war in Singapore; and yet that is exactly where Lizard’s Tale – written by Weng Wai Chan – is set. War as a setting for a children’s fiction is one of those dicey things, but if done right it can be an accelerating tale and a way to introduce young people to that unfortunate reality.
The book follows Lizard, a 12 year old boy who lives hand-to-mouth after his guardian, Uncle Archie, goes missing. It’s Singapore in 1940, and war is just around the corner but Lizard doesn’t know that. He lives in Chinatown above a tailor’s shop, surviving on his wits and hustling for odd jobs. When he steals a small teak box containing a Japanese code book from a Raffles Hotel suite, he finds himself in a dangerous world of wartime espionage. Lizard doesn’t know who to trust. How is the mysterious book inside the box connected to his best friend Lili, a girl full of secrets and fighting skills? Can he trust her, or will she betray him in the end? Lizard’s Tale is an action-packed adventure for middle-grade readers, set in a British colony in Asia as the Japanese invasion of Singapore looms.
I think that Lizard and Lili are characters that many kids will be able to relate to. Lizard is a shy, adventurous kid. Lizard would do anything for his family, and shows this throughout the book by his motivation to find his Uncle. Lili is quite the opposite: loud and outgoing, with lots of energy. Always ready to defend the ones she loves, yet always distracted by the one she loves. I really liked how the author made Lili a spy; I think it helps to inspire young girls.
Lizard’s Tale is an action-packed book from the first page to the last. Although the protagonists are children, the story is sophisticated enough to appeal to older readers (possibly even adults). The chapters are reasonably short, and have an episodic feel to them. Weng Wai Chan has done an amazing job delivering her vision of Singapore in the 1940’s. She creates the sights, sounds, smells and flavours of the city so vividly.
I quite enjoyed this adventure-mad novel. I could visualise it easily and the story kept me hooked and constantly wanting more. The one downside I would have to note is it definitely feels on the longer side. Another thing to note is having two characters with names that start with Li- is mildly, but not overbearingly, confusing.
Chan swaps around viewpoints so frequently that a name to anchor is definitely helpful, but it leads to some awkward roadblocks in the story’s momentum.
Due to a murder and death scene near the beginning of the book that includes a weapon and blood, and because younger readers may have trouble with the new words/phrases being introduced, I am recommending this more for the older middle graders audience.
- Danielle Bryers is 13 years old and lives in Wairarapa.