Maia and What Matters is an exploration of a young girl’s understanding of infirmity and death. Not an obvious theme for a picture book, you might think. But this story manages to combine sensitivity, honesty and beauty within its pages, even in its darker scenes.
The cover of the book is delicious: I could savour it for hours. Every time I look there is something new to see: a squirrel holds a cherry under one paw, a bird perches on a butter biscuit, another on a swing …
It’s no accident that the young girl, Maia, is shown sitting in a cherry tree on the front cover. Cherries are a constant feature of the story. We learn that Maia was born under the cherry tree; the tree is also starting point for running races in the garden. In the illustrations, we see cherries piled up high in a bowl, dangling over a line, nestled in a straw hat … or hinted at in Maia’s collection of cherry-red dresses. They provide an attractive pop of colour that we come to associate with Maia and the story.
Maia and What Matters is narrated in the third person but from Maia’s perspective, with her first-person thoughts and interjections sprinkled throughout the narrative in bold font. Maia is young, direct and feisty. “Let me out! Now!” she cries before she’s even escaped the womb. “Have you got cake in your ears?” she questions when the adults don’t understand what Grandma is saying. I’ll admit that I didn’t immediately bond with Maia, but her personality won me over as the story developed.
Maia’s and her Grandma are kindred spirits. They love to run, tell each other stories, and eat biscuits, sweets and cake. A lovely illustration towards the start of the book shows the pair on swings under the cherry tree looking across at each other. Even after Grandma’s stroke, Maia intuitively knows what she is saying: “She read it in her eyes and picked the letters out of Grandma’s mouth.” In an unexpectedly fun scene, the two of them are like naughty schoolgirls as they break out of Grandma’s hospital room to visit Grandpa in the morgue.
The development of Maia’s understanding about her Grandma’s infirmity is both subtle and insightful. She does not buy into Grandpa’s explanation about Grandma stumbling and falling down; she knows something is going on. She does not understand Grandma’s inability to do simple things and becomes angry. And then she finds a way of coping with her feelings and showing her love for Grandma – through art. I love the double spread with Grandma in her hospital room surrounded by the chaos of drawings and knick-knacks Maia has created. For me, it is a celebration of Maia’s ability to adapt and accept a new situation.
This ability is reinforced when Grandpa dies. Maia sees him sitting still in the chair and accepts that he is no longer alive. “Grandpa had broken a teacup and stopped living.” Maia does not appear distressed – she seems more concerned by the broken china on the carpet. Nor is she upset when she sees Grandpa later in the morgue, focussing instead on the beautiful clouds of breath coming out of her and Grandma’s mouths.
Often, we shy away from talking about the darker side of reality with young children in a bid to protect them. This story is a reminder that children are resilient; they can adapt to circumstances. Truth and knowledge can help them grow. Maia and What Matters is an exquisite picture book and a valuable prompt for discussions between adults and children about infirmity and death.
Maia and What Matters, by Tine Mortier, illustrated by Kaatje Vermeire, translated by David Colmer (Book Island, 2013)
Original title (Dutch): Mare en de dingen (Uitgeverij De Eenhoorn Wielsbeke, 2010)
Tine Mortier is a writer, playwright, teacher, book reviewer and editor born in Waregem in the Belgian province of West Flanders. She writes for both children and adults and her work has been translated into many languages.
Kaatje Vermeire studied Graphic Design and Advertising at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent (Belgium). Her ‘layered’ illustrative style combines different techniques, including dry etching, drawing, painting and collage. She has published a number of picture books as author/illustrator and illustrator. Maia and What Matters marked her debut as an illustrator in the anglophone market.
You can read more about Kaatje Vermeire’s approach to illustration in this interview
David Colmer is an Australian translator and writer based in Amsterdam (Netherlands). He has translated over 20 books from Dutch into English, spanning novels, children’s books and poetry. He is also the author of a novel and a collection of short stories.