Theoretically, Nandita Da Cunha’s The Magic of Maya has everything going for it. A lone child who is stuck with the label of being “different”, a flight into fantasy, fairies, monsters, return to reality and the triumph of imagination. A great deal of effort has gone into the book, the storytelling is painstakingly detailed, so much so that each character’s name has a twist to it you might want to unravel.
Despite all that, the 260-page book left me untouched. I figured out why when I went to watch The Bridge to Terabithia with a bunch of kids and found them all fidgeting through it. Here was a film with New Zealand tourism type landscape, magic, playground battles and, again, the triumph of imagination over drudgery. But it was a children’s film for adults, like Finding Neverland. The director is moving children around in the story, but he’s looking over their shoulders at you, seeking recognition for the cues. You need to be in indulgent nostalgia mode to appreciate these films. Ditto The Magic of Maya.
When the book begins, 10-year-old Tara is a sullen, lone child living in a coastal village, Govan. One evening, as she is brooding on the beach, a magical scarf appears and spirits her away to wonderland. There, she and the good guys with musical names get together and save the fantasy world of Maya. Her travels across the many worlds take her to the cheerful Rizenglow, the rhythm-happy Ritmo and the State of Sea Sirens. From each of these worlds, she draws a friend who will fight with her the battle to save Maya. And in the end, there is a twist to the tale that would be unfair to give away.
The prose tends to sound turgid quite often in The Magic of Maya. Sample the father agonizing about how the family is the subject of village malice: “Gyan shuddered as he thought of the possible consequences, that the little girl like most others, knew nothing of. Why the busybody villagers have to continuously gossip about their affairs? What did they know of their reasons for holding back, of the dangers that might be, or most of all their past that still haunted his dreams at night?”
Da Cunha is a management consultant who is also a pianist. Her love for music shows up in several places across the book. Writing for children is a tough job. As great children’s reading shows, you don’t have to keep the language or the plot ultra-simple for the young. They are capable of filling in the blanks using their intellect. They can deal with complicated plots and a huge cast of characters, but easily see through laboured writing. In this book, the effort is so heavy-footed, it sometimes leaves you gasping.
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