“When daughters of witches and humans reached the age of ten, they decided whether to follow tradition and live as witches themselves. If a girl picked this path, she promptly learned her mother’s magic and chose a full-moon night of her thirteenth year as her coming-of-age day. For a young witch, this meant leaving her parents’ house and moving to live on her own in a town or village in need of magic.” (Kiki’s Delivery Service, by Eiko Kadono, Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, Inc, 1985.)
Eiko Kadono, an award-winning children’s writer from Japan, is often quoted as saying everyone has their own special kind of magic and the key to unlocking it is by being constantly curious about the world. This sentiment can certainly be seen at the heart of her most well-known children’s book, Kiki’s Delivery Service – a coming-of-age story about a young witch leaving the comforts of home for the first time.
Famously inspired by a drawing that Eiko’s daughter created as a child, Kiki is about to turn 13 and must decide whether to live the life of a witch or a human. She decides her path must follow that of her mother’s – a witch also – and as such she must leave home for one year and find a useful outlet for her magical gift. Witches, in Eiko’s world, only have a talent for one magical element, and Kiki’s gift is flying.
With a cat as her companion and a radio hanging from her broom, she waves goodbye to her family in search of a town that might need her gift. She settles on a seaside town and plans her occupation around a happy accident that sends her on a mission to deliver a forgotten item to a mother and child. This incident becomes the beginnings of Kiki’s Delivery Service, where instead of payment (witches are not permitted to use their magic for money) she receives any gift, wisdom, or advice that the customer is able to give.
As a reader you feel Kiki’s excitement and trepidation as she starts her knew life alone and far from home. Unthinkable in the modern non-magical world, but a 13 year-old finding her own home and occupation independent of a loving family home, is a novel concept that explores the idea of discovering who you are minus the pressures of family steering you in any one particular direction. For Kik’s family such a life-altering event can only be possible with complete trust between a parent and a child, as well as an acceptance that fear is also part of that journey.
This idea may have been rooted in Eiko’s own childhood, where she was faced with losing her mother at the age of five, an age when she would have been old enough to understood that her mother was not going to be around anymore, but young enough not to appreciate why. In her novel it is not fully understood why Kiki must go away for a year, but it is understood that this must happen in order for her to learn her true calling in life.
Being away from the family is character building in many ways, but there is always the hint of perhaps this is all just too much. It is ultimately up to Kiki whether she succeeds or fails and she has nobody to blame but herself. Kiki, of course, not only succeeds, but gains friendship and respect from a town that could have easily have rejected her, taking her as an ‘outsider’ to be feared rather than embraced.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Kiki is eventually welcomed into the community, is because every person she encounters also has their own special gift for her to marvel at in return for their curiosity in hers. They might not be able to fly, but they can knit, or they can bake, or they can paint. It is Kiki’s curiosity in the gifts of others that makes her own gift stronger and more relevant to the lives of the town’s people.
Although Kiki is forced to start her life as a witch on her own, live without her family, and start a business as an independent, she is most certainly not alone. By asking questions of others, she frees her creativity, allowing herself to be inspired by the lives of those around her, and build on her own skills, not just her magical ones, but as a person who will play a responsible and caring role in society.
Perseverance is key to Kiki’s success, but so to is friendship with people that are very unlike herself in both age and manner, but nevertheless have important values to impart, which ultimately help her identify the things that are significant to her and how her gifts can best help others.
Kiki eventually returns home, much to the delight of her parents, but she is not the excitable 13 year-old who left for an uncertain journey 12 months earlier. As much as she loves and has missed her family and childhood home, she feels the responsibilities and friendships of her new life calling her away again. The message here appears to be that once you start on a path of self-discovery there is no going backwards, only forwards, and as much as you want to bring people along with you, sometimes it is a journey that has to be done alone.
For fans of the book, there is also a critically acclaimed film adaptation by Anime film director, Hayoo Miyazaki, which is available with English subtitles on Netflix. For those who wish to read more of Eiko’s work, there are five other books in the Kiki series and more than 200 books to Eiko’s name.
Recommended for readers aged eight upward.
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, English translation, Penguin Random House UK.