Maya in a Mess, like the others, is a chapter book for young readers, possibly a sequal to Meera Nair’s Maya Saves the Day. In this story, the eponymous Maya has been coveting the office of monitor-ship for a while, and when she’s finally handed the key to the class stationery stash, including the world’s tallest, biggest, bluest bottle of glue, her cup of joy truly runs over. Despite the taunts of her nemesis Nidhi, Maya is determined to be the Best Monitor Ever. But tragedy is around the corner: Maya and her friends’ regular game of cops and robbers during the break becomes a little extra spirited, and the next thing she knows, the key is gone. What a mess!
As for what happens next, well, the plot is fairly predictable and the focus on the big bottle of glue a bit annoying, but Meera Nair paints a believable picture of a youngster going through what must surely be a major catastrophe. It is difficult not to like the irrepressible, slightly cheeky and conveniently dishonest Maya—give me such “complex” young protagonists any day compared to the dull, goody-two-shoes, black-and-white Enid-Blyton-esque characters we grew up with. The author didn’t have too many words to play with in this seventy-odd-page story, but she manages to give quite a few of the characters distinguishing quirks: Maya’s mother’s newly acquired driving skills, the kid sister with a keen interest in bodily excretions, the prim and proper Nidhi with all her buttons done up and not a hair out of place, and more. The storytelling is fun and peppy, though there are some repetitions in places. Priya Kuriyan’s illustrations also add a great deal of fun to the narrative. In the end what happens to the key and how Maya gets it back is a little disappointing, but it isn’t a bad read overall.
Fans of the hOle series ought to find Maya in a Mess a satisfactory addition. New or reluctant readers are likely to be enticed by it as well, with its simple language, easy pacing and engaging characters. Priya Kuriyan’s illustrations easily make up at least fifty per cent of the appeal of the book. It’s the little details, like the expressions of the characters and the way the holes are fitted into the drawings, that bring joy. My favourite illustration, though, is the one of a top-down view of a despondent Maya lying on her bed in her room. (Though, if one must nitpick, Maya’s mother is on the wrong side of the car in one of the illustrations.)
Chapter books in general are notoriously tricky to get right. These are exactly the type of children’s books that wannabe authors think is “easy” writing (it isn’t) and something that anyone can do (they cannot). The line between keeping it simple and talking down can be a bit hazy, and sometimes even well-intentioned authors can be sidetracked into trying too hard or ending up with a didactic, moralistic tone. One recalls some of the NBT and CBT titles of a decade or two back with horror, and can only be glad that this current generation of kidlit writing is breaking free of such shackles.