Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri, illustrated by Yuta Onoda.
Delacorte Press, Penguin Random House, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 196 pages.
Lexile: 670L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 7.0 points) .
*at the time of this writing, the AR page included both the 2003 and 2020 translations although they are substantially different, so it may change.
NOTE: Reviewing the 2020 translation of a Japanese novel.
Kiki is a young girl coming of age – the only child of a witch and a human folklorist. She’s decided to follow her mother’s traditions and become a witch herself, which means leaving her parents for a witchless town at 13.
This book is the story of Kiki’s first year and reads almost like interconnected short stories. Most chapters are episodic and self-contained, although they do all build to a final end. I haven’t yet watched the popular animated film of the same title. While the two bear many elements in common, reviews indicate that the movie has significant differences from the book (like many Miyazaki films), so I’ve waited to see the animated version.
Although this story is about a girl going from 12 to 14, it’s incredibly wholesome and would make a lovely family read-aloud. In Kiki’s world, witches and humans live alongside one another peacefully and share similar concerns. Kiki quietly refuses to do anything against her morals, but also isn’t perfect – snooping in a package when her curiosity overcomes her, interrupting an old lady who speaks slowly, and speaking sharply to irritating customers. Kadono balances on a fine line between innocence and realism without ever reminding the reader of this impressive tightrope act.
This strength is also what will most lessen the appeal for some readers – the incredibly low conflict. There are no villains here, only people who sometimes make poor choices. This is marketed for children age 8-12 and I would absolutely agree. While Kiki is a young teen, her maturity is expressed entirely through character values or identity development and never through the sex, violence, or other heavy choices that characterize the YA books many middle schoolers rush into. I greatly appreciated having an option for students who are 13 or 14 and not ready for YA or adult fiction but also wanting to read about a child their age.
Other than the gentility and presumed positive world, it’s also a low magic novel. Kiki’s only special ability is her skill at flying. She can talk to her cat companion Jiji, but didn’t learn her mother’s traditional herbal lore. Yet she’s set apart by being a witch, wearing black (even when she’d prefer a floral print dress really), and the traditions she’s chosen to abide by. And of course, she flies throughout the novel! Since this is low on complex magic, it works for students who want to try fantasy or have a genre assignment.
I believe this is the first work in translation I’ve reviewed so I’ll take a moment to discuss Balistrieri’s work. Each translation is a conversation between cultures facilitated by a particular person – one translator might decide something another would do differently. In particular, for Balistrieri to retranslate this decades after the original book was published, knowing that the film is the version most English speakers will be familiar with, had to have been challenging. I wished the translator and illustrator had cover billing because it’s important for young people to see that work acknowledged.
Yuta Onoda is also new to this edition. Beyond the cover, she also did spot and half page illustrations throughout the book plus two full pages, and they reach a perfect balance – referencing the iconic film without copying it or imposing the movie’s imagery on the stylistically quite different book. Onoda has Kiki appropriately aged, a new young woman not a young girl but still maintaining a sense of innocence and subtly maturing through the book.
And Kiki does grow and mature. From the tense overconfidence she left her parents’ house with, she chooses a wish of her own (go to the sea) and follows it through, learns new skills, starts a business, makes friends on her own, learns how to get along with a variety of people, solves problems large and small, and returns to her parents with a quieter, more steady confidence built on self-reliance and community interdependence. Kiki at the end has a home and a place. She knows her own worth, can stick to her values, and follows through to reach a goal despite difficulties. What more could a parent wish for their tween?
Overall, so happy I waited for this new edition – beautifully done on every level. I highly recommend this for sensitive readers, young gifted readers who want a higher reading level without more mature content, and teens who would like a gentle story without violence or relationship drama. One mild mention of romance when Kiki delivers something for a secret admirer, and a possible crush is hinted at, but truly appropriate for even very young readers.