I sometimes wonder if other people grew up in families with a favourite time period. Ours was the Romantic period, I often think. Let me explain: I don’t mean that my family’s house was furnished in a particular way (although our living room furniture is lovely) or that my parents dressed us in replica 19th C clothes, or that they dressed up. They’re very practical, sensible people and would raise their eyebrows at the suggestion (or will send me a caustic email if they read this). What I mean is that living in our house was an immersion course in love of the Romantics: there was an awful lot of Romantic music and literature around, and I grew up knowing that if you were talking about the “fantastic” in Romantic literature then there are certain rules or keys to look out for. My favourite was always that when the fantastic episode was over, it could almost never have happened… almost, except that there might be one sign which would raise doubt: a rose in the wrong place, for example. Did it, or did it not? (Hey, if I got this wrong, Daddy, you can correct me. After all, I never studied this stuff, I just grew up hearing you talk about it!)
The Tea Party in the Woods, written and illustrated by Akiko Miyakoshi could almost be a starter story in the fantastic. Almost, except that it defies adult expectations. This book, the other Kids Can Press book I found at the Harvard Book Store, is translated from the Japanese, with the English edition edited by Yvette Ghione and Katie Scott. It is beautiful to read, and beautiful to look at.
The story goes that a girl, Kikko, realizes that her father has left the house without the pie he meant to bring to her grandmother. She runs after him with the pie only to realize, at last, that she has followed a bear, not her father, and has ended up at a strange tea party of animals in the woods. In her rush, she had crushed the original pie, so the animals provide her with a new one assembled from the tea party, and guide her safely to her grandmother’s house. The illustrations are all a soft, dreamlike black and white, with pops of vibrant colour in Kikko’s red hat and mittens and yellow hair, as well as occasional red and yellow sparks among the animals.
Any adult reader, educated by the experience of reading Alice in Wonderland, watching The Nutcracker, or just spending five minutes talking to my parents, would go in with certain expectations. The animals are evidently a quasi-dream sequence: maybe they are there, maybe they aren’t! We know this because the soft, charcoal-like dreaminess of the forest tells us that we’re in for dreams here. Of course this is going to be your child’s first book about the fantastic and she’s going to learn the rules of that type of story. (Let me note that the Kids Can Press page I linked to above even says, “The ambiguous ending — in which it is not clear whether Kikko imagined the tea party or if the animals simply disappeared back into the woods — provides a terrific opportunity for children to weigh in on what they think happened.” I think it’s lovely that they let parents think that!) Well, the thing is that Kikko is very clear at the end about what happened:
“You’re never alone in the woods,” Kikko answered, smiling.
She was sure her new friends were listening.
I love that ending, fiercely and passionately. She knows what’s going on. This is no Alice waking up and having a curious dream. This is no poor, messed-up Dorothy. Kikko is confident, she’s clear on what’s happened, and she’s moving forward, smiling, surrounded by friends. She shares her red and yellow with the animals in the woods, and they all share the dreamy black and white. Kikko, the animals, your children reading this–all of them know the rules here: what you think has happened, has happened. Don’t doubt, don’t be scared, it’s fine. The bear is a bear, even if he is wearing a coat and hat. The parents? We’re the ones at sea. We, lured on by years of reading ambiguities and dreams, expect doubts, distrust straightforwardness. Kikko surprises us, and I have never, ever been happier to be surprised.
I thought this was going to be a lovely, sweet book. I expected a fairytale tenderness and shyness, maybe with just that special tinge of the strange and fantastic. I got that, but I got something more: I got a confidence in dreams and reliance on the fantastic which I hadn’t experienced since… oh, I don’t know. I guess maybe I had that when I first heard La symphonie fantastique? Before I got really sick of the second movement when 96.3 FM in Toronto played only the second movement every single day of the week, blast them. In any case, The Tea Party in the Woods restored a sense that strange things really can have happened for sure, that children really can rely on their senses– and that sense and nonsense aren’t so far apart.
What’s really special, though, is that reading it with the Changeling made it so clear that we were each reading with our own, very different, experiences. I noticed no surprise in her: talking bears aren’t so unusual, and so she went along with Kikko very happily, and the whole thing made sense. Her only concern was in accurately identifying every single blasted animal in the book, and there are a lot of them (note to parents: maybe spend some time looking up the animals first so that you can answer questions readily and actually get through the story in under an hour); she didn’t mind about the ending at all. I was the one who felt surprise. I was the one who had my world shaken up. She was on solid ground, among her own kind.
That’s a special moment to experience, watching your child’s confidence while you learn something. This book puts the power in the child’s hands, and that? That’s truly fantastic.