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Chirri & Chirra AND Chirri & Chirra in the Tall Grass by Kaya Doi, translated from the Japanese by Yuki Kaneko

This is going to be a review, but also a discourse on the picture book itself. Reading a picture book can be a magical experience for me and I have the deepest regard for the creator of this kind of picture book. And this kind of picture book is rare. Working as a children's bookseller for almost 20 years, and reading hundreds of books out loud each year in a professional and parental capacity, I feel able and qualified to offer my opinion on what makes a superlative picture book. Working as an assistant to a literary agent with a client list that includes many Caldecott winners (including Jon Klassen, who won the Caldecott and the Caldecott honor in the same year) helped me hone my critical eye and understand my instincts and tastes on a more intellectual level.  Writing reviews of picture books for the last nine years, I have reviewed almost 1,000 picture books. And, while I see more picture books every year, I choose to review less every year. I assume that my readers are like me and looking for a picture book worth owning. If you want a fun, quick read, head to the library. But, if you want to invest in a book that, besides having a meaningful story is also a work of art, read my reviews. 

Finishing my third year as an elementary school librarian, I weeded my picture book collection again. And, I brought home a stack of books I could not bear to part with again. Reading through these books, all of them published 60+ years ago, and posting about them on Instagram made me think, once again, about what makes a picture book memorable and worth investing in. Chirri & Chirra and Chirri & Chirra In the Tall Grass by Kaya Doi are examples of unforgettable, beautiful picture books worth investing in, which is exactly what I did. And please know that I am a very frugal person and I do not purchase picture books without much consideration - especially now that my kids are too old to use as a reason.

Seeing illustrations from Doi's books on line and reading reviews (and also knowing that they are published by the superb Enchanted Lion Books, a Brooklyn based independent publisher dedicated to international books with a "playfully subversive flair") I knew that I would fall in love with these books and I did. In her review at Brain PickingsMaria Popova ("reader, writer, inerestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large") notes that, while Doi's books are, "prolific and beloved in Japan," they have been slow to make their way west, in large part because Doi's, "vibrant yet delicate illustrations demand a special attentiveness to color and paper quality, impossible to reproduce with the cheap commodity approach commercial publishers have even to children's books today." Images can't quite convey the quality and production value Enchanted Lion brings to Doi's books, but, if you are a picture book aficionado, you will know what I speak of when I talk about the thickness of the pages and the book case (the hard cover under the dust jacket) as well as the trim size. Walk into any Barnes & Noble (really, please do this, even though they are a chain, we need brick and mortar bookstores to stay alive and maybe even thrive) and look at (and touch) the current crop of picture books on display. They are anemic and generic, for the most part. The book case is thin as are the pages, which are often glossy. Part of the experience of reading a magical picture book is how it feels when you hold it in your hands.
Another aspect to the experience of reading a magical picture book is, of course, the illustrations. The illustrations should invite you to stay a while on each page, lingering over the details. In Kaya Doi's books, her illustrations do exactly this, evoking the books of the transcendent works of Virginia Lee Burton, winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1943. Doi's retro illustrative style is rich with the patterns found in the natural world and those left by humans. Doi's palette also harkens back to an earlier time, employing simple yet vibrant colors.

Another element to a magical picture book experience is the adventure. Whether passing through an enchanted portal to another world or simply traveling to the neighbor's backyard, a magical picture book transports the reader. Doi does this magnificently, as Chirri and Chirra are never without their bicycles, which Popova calls the, "most poetic of vehicles." In Chirri & Chirra, the identical twins wake up early, wanting, "more than anything," to ride their bicycles. I must stop here and commend Yuki Kaneko's translation from the Japanese. I have read (and loved) other Japanese picture books in translation, but also felt the pace and word choice to be clunky at times. Kaneko maintains a lyrical tone in her text that matches Doi's illustrations perfectly. I have no doubt the story is better in Japanese, but the translation doesn't leave much room to wonder. Chirri and Chirra, "pedal along in the forest," ringing their bicycle bells ("Dring-dring, dring-dring!") and feeling a bit hungry.

Which brings me to the next element of a magical picture book experience: eating. Most of my favorite picture books, past and present, involve food in one way or another, whether it's something as everyday as bread and jam or something as special as a birthday cake. Eating together can be a special experience, a celebration, and what you eat reflects that. In Chirri & Chirra, the sisters visit many eateries in the forest, all of which cater to critters in all shapes and sizes. Honeybees share a tiny table on a windowsill, sipping sweet violet tea while Chirri and Chirra, "enjoy a cup of acorn coffee," served in an acorn cup, cap-lid on the side. Doi's attention to detail in the natural world follows in the domestic world. Her serving items, from tea cups and pots to vases and napkins made of leaves, are delicate and darling without being too sweet. In Chirri & Chirra In the Tall Grass, the girls find themselves in a bumblebee's house, which is filled with honeycomb-like shelves, everyone holding a delicacy, all decorated with vase after vase of flowers. It is a golden, glowing Art Deco hive of wonders! And then there are the "honey sponge cake balls wrapped in flower petals" to drool over. The girls visit the chafers' house where their thirst is elegantly quenched, until their attention is piqued by a lizard the color of blue that their throat turns when you stroke their bellies (did you ever do this as a kid? Catch a lizard and rub his belly until it seems like he's asleep?) In Chirri & Chirra, the girls end their day at a beautiful forest hotel where keys and doors of all different sizes lead to a room that is just right for them. Hearing singing, they head out onto their balcony and join in a chorus of animals starting up a concert. Another element of a magical picture book experience is, as Popova notes in her review of Doi's books, "kindness and hospitality." In both books, Chirri and Chirra are met with the, "kindness and hospitality of various animals - creatures wildly unlike themselves, yet animated by a common impulse for goodness." While elegant production and design values, magnificent illustrations, marvelous adventures and delicious food are important elements of a magical picture book experience, community and the kindness of others are what make a book truly memorable and one you will want to return to often.
In Chirri & Chirra In the Tall Grass, the twins hop on their bicycles once again and head off into nature, shrinking to bug size as they ride through the tall grass. While the forest creatures are inviting, there are always tiny bugs in each setting commenting on the curiosity of the twins. The girls follow the lizard back to his house, which is made of fluorite, where the three work together to make a special candy that they share. As Chirri and Chirra ride home in the lovely dusk, munching on their crystal candy, they ride back through the tall grass. "Poof!" and their candy disappears. But the fireflies are out and their cozy home is not far away.

I think I've already said more than enough about why I love Kaya Doi and her creations, Chirri and Chirra. There is one more element that I think makes a memorable picture book and a magical reading experience that is not in Doi's books and that is an unforgettable character. In their twinness and curiosity, Chirri and Chirra are memorable, but they don't exude personality in the way Frances, Eloise, Max and Chrysanthemum do. But that's ok. Doi hits all the other elements of a magical picture book: elegant design values, beautiful illustrations, unforgettable adventures, excellent food and community and kindness.




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