Katie and the Starry Night by James Mayhew

By Maureen Tai, 13 May 2019

IMG_5351A visit to a multi-sensory exhibition of Van Gogh’s works prompted a fond recollection. My oldest child, then 5 or 6, had spotted a print of The Starry Night at a shop and exclaimed excitedly that it looked just like the picture in our Katie book. Upon returning home, she insisted that we read Katie and the Starry Night again – for the umpteenth time. On a re-visit of the picture book today after several years’ hiatus, I am struck anew by the artistry of the illustrations and the marvellously imaginative story of Katie, an adventurous little girl in a red coat, bright red ribbons in her hair. Katie has an unusual and dare I say, enviable, way of interacting with the artwork she encounters … 

Katie and her grandmother take trips to see art fairly often (ah, the joys of living in London!). On this one excursion, they visit an art gallery to see pictures by the brilliant yet tragic Dutch artist and painter, Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853 – 1890). Grandma does what she always does at the beginning of each Katie book: she settles down for a snooze on a public bench, leaving the insatiably curious Katie to her own devices. No sooner has Grandma’s taken her first of forty winks, Katie is scrambling into her favourite van Gogh picture, a stunning nightscape of a town or village under a swirling, tumultuous sky filled with luminescent stars. Neither I nor my children can remember how Katie discovered that she had this absolutely fantastical ability to ‘enter’ the worlds of the works of art by simply climbing through the picture frames, but it is something we still whisper to each other when we see a particularly evocative or expansive landscape. Wouldn’t it be super if we could go inside this painting like Katie can? 

Back to Katie and The Starry Night. While perched near the top of a darkened tree, Katie does something she doesn’t often do – she reaches out and pockets a sparkly star so she can show it to her grandmother later. However, as the little girl tumbles out of the painting with the star shimmering in her coat pocket, wispy tendrils of the starry night sky curl and wend their way out of the painting and into the gallery, as if in pursuit of the little girl. Young Katie is delighted and reaches out her hands to play with the stars but she isn’t quite tall enough. Ever resourceful, she looks around and spies a sturdy chair the colour of hay in another picture entitled Vincent’s Chair. She proceeds to pull the chair out of its picture frame, but even standing on it, Katie is not tall enough to reach the stars that continue to cascade in waves into the gallery. To her dismay, the stars start to float into pictures that they don’t belong to! How is Katie going to corral these celestial bodies back into their own picture before the gallery guard notices that they are missing?

A large part of the genius of this lovely picture book is the clever and imaginative weaving of several of van Gogh’s most recognisable works of art into a story that is both appealing and thrilling for young children. The illustrations are captivating, and when in that painting’s world, Mayhew is faithful to the artistic technique of the painter whilst infusing it with his own distinctive, child-friendly style. The result is a non-didactic and playful introduction to real-life masterpieces from the Western art world.

But what I adore most about Katie and the Starry Night, and about all the books in the Katie series, is the way the past is made relevant, interesting, magical even. Grand works of art from decades, even centuries ago, tell wondrous stories for a present-day little Katie and for the readers who join her on her adventures. Having her grandmother as Katie’s anchor to the present at the start and end of each picture-portalling episode follows on this theme. We can learn much from the past, if only we are willing to look, listen and open our minds to it. When was the last time you looked closely at a picture in a gallery, or even an old, sepia-toned photograph, and let your mind, and your imagination, wander into it?

For ages 5 and up.

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