Maia and What Matters
by Tina Mortier & Kaatje Vermeire
Reviewed by Stephanie Owen Reeder
Maia is a feisty little girl in a hurry. From the moment she was born in a wicker chair under a cherry tree, while her mother was reading an exciting book, Maia was keen to take on the world. An early walker and an early talker, Maia wanted everything to happen right now! Her equally enthusiastic and active Grandma becomes her very best friend. Together, they eat cakes, climb trees and enjoy life to the full. Then one day something terrible happens––Maia’s Grandma has a stroke. And, when she finally awakes from a coma, much to Maia’s distress and frustration her special, crazy, adorable Grandma has forgotten so much––including how to talk and how to walk.
Rather than withdrawing into herself, brave Maia tries, in her own inimitable way, to draw Grandma out of herself. She makes her wobbly pottery plates and hundreds of drawings of her favourite things to adorn the walls of her hospital room. And, slowly, painfully and often indistinctly, Granma re-learns how to talk. But then fate steps in yet again, and Maia’s beloved Grandpa dies––suddenly and painlessly, with a smile on his face. While disability and death may seem like very dark themes for a children’s picture book, they are handled with such understanding and positivity that this distinctive and stunning book should resonate with a wide audience. Maia and her Grandma’s infectious love of life shines through despite the heavy themes, and this positive approach in Maia and What Matters helps both the characters and the reader cope with the difficult subject matter.
Mortier’s text is unusual, interesting and rather rambunctious––just like her characters–and it has been sympathetically and seamlessly translated by David Colmer. It carries the story in a no-nonsense way through the intricacies of Maia’s relationships, and the ways in which she deals with the disasters which befall the people that she cares most about. The use of reverse-indented, bold text to represent Maia’s thoughts and comments is particularly effective––it provides a window into the child’s mind. And Mortier pulls no punches. When Grandpa dies, her text is sympathetic, symbolic and straight to the point––‘Grandpa had broken a teacup and stopped living.’
There are echoes of John Birmingham’s textured, intricate and decorative illustrations in Vermeire’s work. Her images are often a stunning combination of sombre greys and life-affirming reds, representing both the solemn themes and Maia’s indomitable will and determination. Other life-affirming symbols abound in the illustrations––from the succulent red of cherries, to the flittering enthusiasms of a sparrow and the scampering curiosity of a squirrel, to the recurring image of the cherry tree, as it passes through the changing seasons. Vermiere uses a multimedia approach, including stamps, stencils, collage, printing, painting and drawing. Her images are full of movement and life, and are very visually engaging. However, like the text, the illustrations are often confronting and thought-provoking, with strong fairy-tale and surrealistic elements.
This is a powerful, evocative and moving book. It is one that should initially be shared and discussed with a child, rather than allowing them to make its acquaintance by themselves. However, there is much within its pages to help both children and adults learn how to cope with those inevitable but important elements of life––love, loss and grief. Highly recommended.