When TOON Books originally asked me to advertise their Maya Makes a Mess contest in July, I asked for a copy of the book to review along with the contest. I mentioned in the blog post how much I liked TOON Books, so I selfishly wanted the book for myself. When we got the book in the mail, the girls wanted to read it right away. Gloria ended up loving this book and reading it over and over. In fact, I've had a hard time holding onto it for long enough to get a review written! It's been a huge hit at our house.
The book opens with Maya and her parents eating dinner at the table. Her parents are scolding her for eating with her hands (something I am very familiar with!). The scolding continues: "'Sit down!' 'Sit up!'... 'Use a spoon!'. (p.6) Frustrated, Maya asks why she has to follow all these rules. Her father tells her "You need manners! What if you were eating dinner with the QUEEN?!" (p. 7). And then the doorbell promptly rings. Of course, it is the Queen's courtier. Maya is whisked off to court for a dinner party. She does point out htat she has already eaten, but that doesn't matter. When the royal dinner is served, it is made up of all the things a child does NOT like to eat - goose livers, snail salad, spinach juice and broccoli broth. So Maya pulls out her manners to request pasta with ketchup. She pats herself on the back for good manners, and when she isn't sure which fork is the pasta fork, she digs in to the pasta the way she always has. There are slurps, long noodles jammed into Maya's mouth, slipping through her teeth. Suddenly, Maya becomes aware that while she's enjoying herself, everyone in the room is staring at her.
Maya's total lack of manners is at first horrifying to the party guests. The Queen is shocked and disgusted. But when she asks Maya why she eats that way, Maya tells the Queeen that it makes food taste better. This then intrigues the Queen, who decides she (and everyone else at court) should try eating Maya's way. There is a huge free-for-all, with people eating messily, but enjoying every moment of it. And lest you parents worry that your children will want to eat like Maya all the time, the Queen declares that this has been so much fun that they will all eat like this again. But only on holidays.
In my first blog post on this book, I mentioned that I was a little leery of it. I, along with most parents, work hard to instill good manners and behavior in my daughters. I was afraid that this book would indulge bad manners, messy eating and ignoring the polite way to do things. I was especially afraid when Gloria kept reading it - poring over it again and again in her bed, on the couch, wherever she could find it. I was sure there was going to be a manners revolution in my house.
But I was so focused on the bad manners that I didn't realize Modan's subtle way of putting those manners into perspective. Maya's bad manners aren't applauded by the Queen at first. As I said previously, the Queen stops the entire dinner party in disgust. But it's the way Maya describes her way of eating that appeals to the Queen. When the Queen asks, repulsed, "...why, for heaven's sake, do you eat that way?" Maya tells her "It makes food taste better." and adds "much better!" (p. 25). It's Maya's total enjoyment that makes the Queen curious. The double page spread that follows is hilarious and gross at the same time. People are cramming lettuce in their mouths with their hands, slurping soup out of a ladle, feeding each other and spilling. But here is the best part - the Queen's dinner party has gone from being a stuffy affair, with too many forks and food no one wants to eat, to a fun party where the guests are relaxed, smiling, and enjoying themselves. That's what Modan is really emphasizing here. There is a time and a place for manners and fun. Maya may have mixed the two up slightly, but she has brought fresh air into the palace. And the Queen is wise enough to mandatethat this sort of fun should only take place on holidays. This isn't an everyday free-for-all - it's reserved only for special occasions.
For me, one of the best things about this book are the illustrative details. Modan gets the life of a young girl just right. From the very first panel, Maya is a total charming mess. As she leaves on the plane to the palace, she stands on the cabin stairway, waving cheerfully. She wears mismatched socks, scrunched around her feet, with no shoes and unkempt hair. Her parents fruitlessly wave a dress and a toothbrush at Maya while the ambassador mutters "'No time, no time!'" (p. 11). The Queen is much younger than Queen Elizabeth, but does have corgis that follow her every move. And the illustration of her at the wild feast, pouring ketchup into her mouth straight from the bottle, is simply perfect. There is nothing better. Oh, except for the long, loopy strand of spaghetti that meanders along the bottom of all the pages. It begins on the back of the title page, with a pot filled with boiled noodles. And it ends, on the last page, in a final perfectly fitting detail. Just perfect.
You may also remember from my blog post that I love how TOON Books has created these titles for easy readers. This book lists its reading level as Grades 1-2, and I would say for the most part that is exactly right. Many words are repeated throughout so if a child doesn't know it the first time they encounter it, they'll have plenty of opportunities to review it. The only place I thought an emerging reader might have trouble was with the food labels at the dinner party. I don't know many first graders who would recognize the words broth, livers or souffle, but that could just be nitpicking on my part. Otherwise this book is easy for a child to pick up and get great enjoyment from.
The visual literacy aspect is also strong. There are at the most six panels per page. Modan is careful to indicate movement from panel to panel, so the new reader can easily decode which panel they should look at next. And text and illustrations work together harmoniously. Maya is very expressive, and Modan includes lots of emphasis in the text through bold fonts and italics. It's easy to see how the text should be read. All in all, Maya is a fun book to share with young readers. It might make them not just a voracious reader, but a polite eater too.
Maya Makes a Mess. Rutu Modan. TOON Books, 2012.
sent by publisher for review