All the World’s a Stage for Kids

Maya’s Big Scene – Words and pictures by Isabelle Arsenault
Tundra Books, 2021

Here is another unforgettable character from author and artist Isabelle Arsenault.  Outgoing confident, stagey, a bit bossy, Maya is a child theater director with an uncompromising artistic vision. In other words, she tells her fellow thespians what to do. She might be the modern-day heir to Maurice Sendak’s Rosie in The Sign on Rosie’s Door (as well as the Carole King musical, Really Rosie), Maya is definitely her own person; kids will identify with both her uncompromising convictions, and the understandable rebellion of her friends.

Maya is a perfectionist. The other neighborhood children are ready to dive into the dramatically red costume chest for their planned performance, but Maya cautions them to “Wait, wait, wait.” Arsenault’s little diva is distinguished by her bright pink tutu; her friends appear in black and white, in contrast to both their boss and to the most important props in the story.  It seems that their play is from an unusual script for young kids, since it includes a celebration of revolution.

Soon, the fourth wall collapses, as it becomes apparent that both the characters and the actors want to rebel. “We come in peace!” but also announce without apology, “We want freedom!” “We want equality,” and, in case Maya has missed the point, “In the queendom!”  Maya is not getting the message, since she declares herself ready to issue a proclamation.

At that point, the world of fantasy steps in.  As in another children’s classic, Harold and the Purple Crayon, the children become their own creation.  Arsenault’s pink and red-hued cast of knights, damsels, and horses ask the reader to step back from the conflict and enjoy the show. Everything looks promising, especially when Maya asks, “Who will conceive of this land of freedom, respect and equality with me?!!!” But then reality intrudes.  Maya apparently thinks that respect and equality are a one-way street. Not until she concedes that actors, workers, and kids have rights (“Good point, musketeer.”) does true equality enter her queendom.  Any child who has ever been pushed around by a peer convinced of his own superiority will cheer along, throwing festive objects into the air with joy.

Maya’s Big Scene isn’t about a bully. She’s a talented little girl who needs to cultivate empathy and perspective. Part of the book’s appeal is that Arsenault avoids the temptation to make her a completely unsympathetic tyrant.  Children need to learn how to get along with one another; the jubilantly performative setting of this inventive book is a perfect expression of that truth.

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