Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Kiki's Delivery Service
When Kiki decided to follow in her mother's witchly footsteps, she knew that during one of the full moons of her thirteenth year she'd have to leave her parents and set out into the world, as tradition demanded. Now that the day is approaching, Kiki's not so sure she's ready for it, but nevertheless she makes up her mind to go, and she and her black cat Jiji set out. Kiki has to settle in a town without a witch and she wants to see the ocean, so she heads for the coast and picks the small city of Koriko. Not only do they not currently have a witch, but they've never had a witch, and not everyone is sure that Kiki's arrival is a good thing. But with her flight magic and her determination, Kiki makes a place for herself as she continues the difficult process of growing up.
First published in 1985, Eiko Kadono's novel Kiki's Delivery Service is not what we'd call a light novel, but rather a solid lower-middle grade text with a few illustrations, more along the lines of Katherine Applegate's The Wish Tree in terms of reading level and images than, for example, By the Grace of the Gods or any other light novel that deals with coming-of-age. If it shows its age, it's only in the style of storytelling, which is old-fashioned in its simplicity and the way it uses its themes, whereas more modern middle grade novels often try to push the boundaries of what their readers are presumed able to handle. That not only makes Kadono's book a treat for fans of the 1989 Miyazaki film, but also a good choice for younger readers in general, because while the book does cover some relatively difficult material thematically, it does so in an easily digestible way that shows why Kadono is an award-winning author.
The story covers the span of one year in the life of a young witch named Kiki. In the novel's world, witches are a separate race of people who have the ability to use magic; when people ask Kiki if she can teach them to fly, she says that they can't unless they have witch blood. Kiki gets hers from her mother, and although her father is human, at age ten she makes the choice to become a witch like her mother, which opens the door for her to use her magic. But at the same time, it means that when Kiki turns thirteen, she'll have to set out on her own to find a place in the world to live as a witch, unable to return for exactly a year. This is a decision that all children of a witch and a human have to make, the implication being that kids with two witch parents are stuck living as a witch. But the very fact that this is a choice before children of mixed heritage gives us the idea that there aren't as many witches as there used to be, and that perhaps not a lot of children are making the decision to become witches themselves. Kiki, upon running into another young witch on her journey, notes that she's never met another, and her mother remarks that much of the old magics have been lost. Whether or not witches are matrilineal isn't really addressed in the larger context of the world.
As you might expect, the overall theme of the novel is finding your place in life and learning to become the person you want to be. Witches especially put stock in this notion with their mandated home-leaving at age thirteen, but also in terms of what Kiki is expected to do: she has to find a town without a witch and find a way to use her magic to help others. Since Kiki's only magic is flying (having not learned her mother's medicinal magic), she sets herself up as a delivery service, offering to fly things from one place to another, which often requires some creative thinking on her part. As readers of middle grade fiction and the younger chapter book demographic know, the idea of “doing something to make the world better” is a time-tested theme for the genre, with Barbara Cooney's picture book Miss Rumphius (sometimes better known as The Lupine Lady) being the gold standard. As is appropriate for this age level, Kadono doesn't beat readers over the head with either this or the idea of it being important for Kiki to find her own path in life; instead readers are allowed to come to their own conclusions about it as Kiki endears herself to the people of her new home, discovers how to do things on her own, and realizes that although she'll always love her parents and be a part of their lives, she's also allowed to be her own person. While thirteen may seem a bit young for this sort of plotline, it is the age associated with adulthood in a variety of cultures, with the best-known being Judaism, where thirteen is the age of the adulthood ceremony, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Fans of the Miyazaki film who are just now reading the source novel will note that the focus is much more fully on Kiki, with characters like Tombo taking a backseat role, although that stands to change in the rest of the series. (As a note, the second novel wasn't published until 1993, and thus not the inspiration for any differences between the 1989 movie and the source novel.) Kiki's relationship with Jiji is also noticeably different, with the two of them feeling much closer (and more consistently close) than in the film adaptation, and the themes of coming-of-age are handled with a bit more subtlety. The illustrations, provided by a different illustrator than in the previous edition, try to strike a balance between the Miyazaki designs and more traditional western children's book images, and it largely works, providing context to people who are more likely to have seen the movie first while still making it clear that this is its own version.
Emily Balistrieri's new translation helps demonstrate why Kadono was the winner of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY)'s 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award. Kiki's Delivery Service is a lovely, meaningful story without excessive use of symbolism or talking down to its readers. Like any good children's book, it is equally as enjoyable no matter what age you read it at, and whether you read it to yourself or aloud as a bedtime story, this is a successful tale of finding your place in the world, even if it means having to do a few scary things along the way.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Art : B+
+ Enjoyable no matter the age of the reader, particularly successful at the early middle grade level in terms of writing style. Pictures strike a good balance between anime and western illustration.
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