It takes considerable talent for an illustrator to do justice to the peacock, to come even close to matching nature in rendering its most exquisite bird. With their textured and evocative illustrations in Malaika’s Costume and Maya, Irene Luxbacher and Elly MacKay, respectively, give nature a run for its money. Their images are the perfect backdrop for these deep and engaging stories about characters grappling with a parent’s absence.
In Malaika’s Costume, written by Toronto educator Nadia L. Hohn, the peacock serves as inspiration for the title character’s Carnival costume. Malaika’s mother has left their Caribbean home for Canada to make a better life for their family. The little girl is waiting for her mother to send money for a costume like the magnificent peacock in her dreams. But when a letter arrives without the promised money, Malaika storms outside, furious at her grandmother’s suggestion she wear a hand-me-down costume instead.
Her anger is quelled by an overheard lyric from a kaiso song playing on someone’s stereo: “… we are poor but we have dignity …”
Inspired, Malaika stops by the tailor’s shop to ask for scrap cloth. Arriving home with her bundle, she discovers her grandmother has fixed up the old Carnival costume. With imagination and gumption, they create the rainbow peacock together.
Luxbacher’s previous work includes Mr. Frank, another story about fabrics and tailors, and her collage illustrations are detailed with bright prints, warm colours, and flowers. The childlike images befit Malaika’s first-person narration and point of view, the prose made musical with colloquial phrasing. Hohn’s text – which won the Helen Isobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Story Award celebrating diversity in children’s literature – shows Malaika emerging triumphant as she creates her costume, and the illustrations portray her use of storytelling in maintaining the connection with her mother, via letters sent to Canada.
In Maya, written by former Owlkids Books managing editor Mahak Jain, another young girl uses storytelling to connect with a missing parent. When the electricity goes out, the darkness emphasizes the sadness and fear Maya has experienced since her father’s death. She and her mother go up to the roof overlooking their Indian city, and Maya’s mother tells her a story about the first monsoon. Though people feared the storm, out of the rain emerged a banyan tree. Its roots drank the water and the tree grew strong, with branches that could support a tiger.
The story ends peacefully, in the quiet dark, and Maya’s mother settles into sleep. But in wakeful Maya’s imagination, the story continues in a frightening vein: now she’s climbing the banyan tree, and a tiger sneaks by. Monkeys are cackling. Below her, she hears the peacock striking its beak against the tree.
Maya thinks of her father – “Papa used to tell stories too. He said that a story was like a bird. It flew you to places you had never heard of, and the places always changed you.” – and is reminded that scary ideas can be transformed.
Light infuses MacKay’s images as Maya works to reshape her story, with Jain’s text subtly and perfectly portraying her character’s gradual empowerment. As the little girl nestles into her mother’s embrace, she also feels her father’s presence (he appears as a shadow holding her hand) and hears the familiar tune he used to whistle while walking her to school.
Both books have an appeal and approach similar to the Newbery Medal–winning Last Stop on Market Street. They’re beautifully illustrated, feature children of colour without race being the central focus, and concern family connections. Both also highlight the discovery of beauty and strength in unlikely places. These are stories that fly their readers to somewhere new – and, yes, leave them changed.