The very first book I remember reading on my own was James and the Giant Peach, and according to my mother, she read me the first few chapters and I simply took it from there on my own. If a kid reads a book enough that it falls to pieces, he probably loves it, and I loved that book and a great many others completely to death in those years. Even at that age, though, I knew — however distantly — that people wrote books; they didn’t just manifest, like leaves from trees. Somewhere along the way I got it into my head that I, too, would one day write a book. Not just any old book, either, but something that would give other kids (and maybe some bigger people, too) something else to fall in love with.
That was almost forty years ago, and I haven’t yet written anything like that — not for lack of trying, but only because if there is one literary task that is harder than anything else I know of, it’s writing a book for all ages. Not just a “kid’s book”, but a book that is open-ended and -hearted enough that anyone can pick it up and not feel condescended to or embarrassed. That was what I liked most about Peach (and Roald Dahl’s other books in the same vein), and most everything Daniel M. Pinkwater wrote, and, yes, Kiki’s Delivery Service. To me, they are all models for how something like this is done well.
If the name Kiki’s Delivery Service sounds familiar, it probably is — this is indeed the basis for Hayao Miyazaki’s movie of the same name, which preserves about two-thirds of the same story but rushes off in some directions that manifest very differently in the book. Anyone who enjoyed one will enjoy the other; there seems no dispute about that in my mind. That and anyone who hasn’t already savored either one of them is in for a delight: it’s a shame, really, that it took almost twenty years for this story to find an English translation.
The Kiki of the title is a witch — the latest in a long line of same, now coming of age and facing the gloomy prospect of having to leave home and prove herself by putting her powers to good use somewhere. Like many other heroines (and heroes) in stories of this sort, she’s a bit of a daydreamer and doesn’t have a great deal of confidence in her powers — hence the bells along the treetops in her hometown, to remind her not to let her broom fly too low. One day after a bit of dithering, Kiki finally chokes down her ambivalence and decides to prove herself — the sooner the better! And to that end, on the night of the next full moon, she pulls on the long black dress made for her (“It looks so dowdy this long,” Kiki bemoans), jams a few possessions into a duffle bag, and takes to the sky on her broom. Her only companion is her cat Jiji, who provides wisecracking running commentary that serves as a foil for Kiki’s own gentle, clear-faced naïveté.
Kiki may be naïve, but that also gives her the nerve to stick her neck out in ways other people might not normally entertain. When she first arrives in the town she later chooses to settle in, she does so in the most bald-faced and unpretentious way possible: she lands in the middle of a busy street and declares: “My name is Kiki, and … I’m a witch!” No such luck. But although after some dispirited ambling about, she runs across Osono, the baker’s wife, who desperately needs something ferried to the far side of town. And in the same almost thoughtless but thoroughly good-hearted way, Kiki offers to take up the job.
It takes yet another leap of confidence on her part to consider doing that as her vocation, but before long she’s hung out her shingle and has made a name for herself about town. In time she also learns to draw on that sense of selflessness more completely and courageously — not just to help others, but to let them help her as well. When her broom is “stolen” by Tombo — a local youth who’s part of a “flying club” — she’s indignant at first, but is later able to draw on Tombo’s ingenuity for a particularly tricky delivery mission. Each successive project scales up a bit more — there’s a fairly major sequence involving a town clock that was reworked into the climax of the film — but at the heart of each one is the spirit to do the right thing for the right reasons.
This same spirit manifests in the smaller and more thoughtful bits, too. At one point Kiki is drafted (again, pun intended) into delivering a poem to a boy that a girl has a crush on. When she grows curious about its contents, she loses it in transit, but recreates it as best she can from memory, delivers it anyway … and then owns up about the mistake to her client. As it turns out, the girl’s flattered that something she wrote could inspire such burning curiosity, whether from the intended recipient or someone else. Both of them walk away with a new friend in the bargain. (Another, shorter sequence, where Kiki meets a slightly eccentric girl painter, was expanded on considerably in the movie but was only a vignette here — kind of a shame, since that was one of my favorite parts.)
Even when I was young, I was aware of whether or not a given book had been translated from another language — I encountered Zamyatin’s We and Stanisław Lem’s The Star Diaries pretty early on (in both cases, probably before I was ten), and was always conscious of how the fact they had been written in Russian or Polish meant I might be missing something. Lynne Riggs’s translation of Kiki from its original Japanese is never distracting, although there are occasional compromises — a poem that almost certainly rhymed in Japanese doesn’t rhyme here, but the meter swings consistently enough for it to be pleasing, either to a child’s ear or to our own, more grown-up ones. (One of the Amazon.com reviewers pointed out some more detailed nitpicks which I’m not sure I can comment on authoritatively, but the whole works well enough that I can forgive the omission of a cultural reference that would be next to impossible to find a parallel for anyway.)
I’ve avoided using the words “children’s book” to describe Kiki, if only because I kept thinking that would be either ignoble or inaccurate or both. I realize now it’s neither. Had I children of my own, I’d read to them from Kiki with pleasure, and hope someday in turn they would do the same. Plus, there’s something deeply affirmative about being able to read and love a book like this no matter how old you are — it’s a sign that you can dig simplicity and joy out from under the rubble of the world, something kids do pretty effortlessly. Any story that inspires a little more of that is worth it, no matter where you get it from or in whose hands it ends up.