Storytelling Tips From Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.

Opening scene from Kiki's Delivery Service
Children’s books often begin with a child looking out a window, about to embark upon a journey. Kiki does something similar, but she gazes up into the sky.


Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.

Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.

“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.


photo of real landscape which inspired Kiki's Delivery Service

location of the inspiration for Kiki's Delivery Service setting
Visby is a town on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its well-preserved town wall, a medieval fortification incorporating defensive towers. The town’s many churches include the grand, centuries-old St. Mary’s Cathedral and the medieval ruins of St. Nicolai and St. Karin. The main square, Stora Torget, has cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants.

Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian storyworld of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.

[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.

Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.


Kiki's Delivery Service Japanese Book Cover
This early cover gives quite a different feel, doesn’t it?
Kiki's Delivery Service updated Japanese book cover
The series has since been reissued. This is number six. A completely different vibe again, with Kiki now looking coquettishly at the audience in a slightly self-conscious, sexualised pose.

Continue reading “Storytelling Tips From Kiki’s Delivery Service”

Hygge is the word English needs to describe children’s literature

Danes are scratching their heads about why an everyday word they’ve been using privately for generations is suddenly taking the English-speaking world by storm. See for example articles such as 11 Ways To Make Your Life More Hygge.

The round house, partially hidden, the smell of tobacco, the nearby river and surrounding rural setting: This is 'Hygge'.
The round house, partially hidden, the smell of tobacco, the nearby river and surrounding rural setting: This is ‘Hygge’.

Hygge is pronounced more like hoo-ga. 

‘Hygge’ is not just a word — it is part of Scandinavian culture. From Wikipedia:

Hygge, meaning ‘snug’; is a concept that evokes “coziness”, particularly when relaxing with good friends or loved ones and while enjoying good food. Christmas time, when loved ones sit close together on a cold rainy night, is a true moment of hygge, as is grilling a pølse (Danish sausage) and drinking a beer on a long summer evening.[4][dubious – discuss] It is suspected the concept of Hygge is part of the reason Danes and other Scandinavians score high on happiness.

A similar concept exists in German.

Gemütlichkeit describes a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities include coziness, peace of mind, belonging, well being, and social acceptance.

These concepts don’t exactly match the closest English has, which is something like ‘cosy’:

“Hygge” as noun includes a feeling, a social atmosphere, and an action. The word is also used in compositions as “Julehygge” (Christmas-hygge). “Hygge” is also a verb eg. “Lets hygge” and as an adjective eg. “A small, hyggeligt house with grass on the roof”.

Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge
Note the grassy roof. Illustration from Martha B. Rabbit and the Unexpected Guests by Shirley Barber, an expert in hygge

The noun “Hygge” includes something nice, cozy, safe and known, but it should not be confused with the English, Dutch, German or Polish synonym. That word is more a physical state, instead the Danish and the Norwegian word focus on a psychological state.“Hygge” is a state where all psychological needs are in balance.

The antonym of hygge is uhyggelig, which translates as “scary”.

Hygge Picturebooks

Various conventions contribute to the hygge of picturebooks and chapter books for young readers:

Jerry Griswold has his own word to describe this feeling: ‘snugness’:

I am engaged in a book-length study of pleasures particular to childhood. To explain what I mean, I often point to the joy children get from playing under tables or behind couches or in tents made of chairs and blankets. I know few adults who enjoy playing under tables.

That particular example has led me to explore, among others, the topic or poetics of snugness in Children’s Literature. I should also add that my studies began shortly after September 11 when I was haunted by stories my daughter, a schoolteacher, told about her first graders’ drawings after that event: What those pictures seem to indicate was a deep concern with vulnerability. So, in an essay (“Reading Differently After September 11”) for an Irish journal, I explored “vulnerability” as an opposite of snugness or coziness.

Jerry Griswold, Snugness in The Secret Garden


Hygge is more apparent in picture books aimed at girl readers. This is no doubt because hygge is associated with home, and certainly throughout the 20th century, girls in stories stayed home.

Illustrators can evoke hygge with:

  • Yellow, diffuse light coming from lamps and candles
  • Storybook farms
  • Cottages, log cabins, decor reminiscent of pioneer times
  • Well-stocked kitchens (which are metonyms for familial happiness)
  • Houses in rural/semi-rural areas near bodies of water and good trees for climbing (see the work of philosopher Denis Dutton for more on that)
  • Permanently sunny and temperate weather
  • Moons which light up the night as effectively as suns light up the day
  • Beds with lots of covers and plush pillows
  • Grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, standalone wardrobes, children’s art on the walls, loaves of unsliced bread, homemade jam in pottery jars, dining room furniture made out of roughhewn wood, fabrics of paisley and gingham, kitchen appliances at least 20 years behind the modern era, shag pile rugs, open fires with yellow flames, bedheads with metal bars on them
  • Aprons, reading glasses, slippers, suspenders on trousers
  • Parents with big bellies and stout constitutions
  • Hedgehogs (in English stories), owls (at night), cats, docile old dogs, robins, sparrows, ‘good insects’ like grasshoppers and ladybugs and ants (not Huntsman spiders)
  • An emphasis on storeys and attics, and away from basements.

Hygge Toys


Sylvanian Families are Japanese design (though made in China these days). They were created by a company called Epoch in 1985.

The Japanese are also very good at hygge. (And also very good at horror, a discussion for another day!)


Pronounced igokochi, the characters transliterate to ‘where the heart is’. (It translates into English as ‘cosiness’. In Japanese you can then say ‘the cosiness is good’ to get ‘cosy’.)

The Problematic Flipside of Hygge Children’s Literature

There is definitely a place/need for hygge in children’s books. Picturebooks are most likely to be read to children just as they fall asleep, and there is a strong preference among consumers — particularly American consumers — to buy hygge books rather than scary ones. (Interestingly, this isn’t a trend shared by the Scandinavians, who have a higher tolerance for scary stories — possibly because their children’s lives themselves are quite hygge.)

  1. In children’s books, a hygge home almost always glorifies the nuclear family in which the father goes out to work and the mother — probably wearing an apron — stays home and keeps house. We are now living in a world where we should be careful of glorifying such a household.
  2. Keepers of hygge are much more likely to be female characters, underscoring the notion that girls and mothers are the natural caretakers and boys don’t have a role there except to enjoy the spoils of a clean house and home cooking.

Kitchens As Metonyms For Familial Happiness In Literature

As Rene Welleck and Warren Austin suggest, in Theory of Literature, ‘domestic interiors may be metonymic or metaphoric expressions of character’.

The comforting image of an idealized maternal figure and environment are produced in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War. Carrie and her little brother Nick are evacuated to Wales during World War 2. They are billeted with a rather strange couple whose house is cold and austere. But they derive much comfort from visiting Hepzibah whose kitchen is “A warm, safe, lighted place … Coming into it was like coming home on a bitter cold day to a bright, leaping fire. It was like the smell of bacon when you were hungry; loving arms when you were lonely; safety when you were scared.’ Thus, the kitchen is a maternalized space, a place where warmth, the promise of food, bodily contact, and security conflate to produce feelings of comfort. When the children first meet Hepzibah she is “smiling. She was tall with shining hair the colour of copper. She wore a white apron, and there was flour on her hands. She has “a rather broad face, pale as cream, and dotted with freckles. Carrie thought she looked beautiful: so warm and friendly and kind.’ The feelings of homely, maternal comfort evoked by the descriptions of the kitchen and of Hepzibah herself are embellished and reinforced by sensuous descriptions of food. Carrie is shown the dairy where “there were speckly eggs in trays on the shelf, slabs of pale, oozy butter, and a big bowl of milk with a skin of cream on the top.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature


Do you have a favourite picture book kitchen? What does it say about the character who lives in it?

The Treasure Bag: stories and poems selected by Lena Barksdale. Illustrated by Maurice Brevannes, 1947.
The Treasure Bag: stories and poems selected by Lena Barksdale. Illustrated by Maurice Brevannes, 1947.

from one of the Brambly Hedge books


by Tasha Tudor, illustrator
by Tasha Tudor, illustrator


The Diary Of A Forest Girl by illustrator Aeppol
The Diary Of A Forest Girl by illustrator Aeppol
Little House On The Prairie Kitchen
Little House On The Prairie illustrated by Garth Williams
Little House On The Prairie Garth Williams
Food would have been basic by modern standards, but was very important in the stories


The illustrations in this early edition of the book seem a lot more austere than the 1980s television adaptation
The illustrations in this early edition of the book seem a lot more austere than the 1980s television adaptation
from Oliver Twist
from Oliver Twist

Animal Kitchens

The smaller, working-class Victorian kitchen or parlour would appear, to a modern child, to have all the warm, dark earthiness of rabbit hole or badger sett.

— Margaret Blount, Animal Land

Wind In The Willows

Kitchen scene from Wind In The Willows by Arthur Rackham
Kitchen scene from Wind In The Willows by Arthur Rackham
Wind In The Willows kitchen illustrated this time by Inga Moore
Wind In The Willows kitchen illustrated this time by Inga Moore
And this one is by Robert Ingpen.
And this one is by Robert Ingpen.

Brambly Hedge

Jill Barclem cooking on the fire
Brambly Hedge: Jill Barclem illustrates cooking on the fire, Victorian style
Jill Barclem Brambly Hedge
Another kitchen from Brambly Hedge — in an animal utopia there is always enough to eat and no one ever gets eaten themselves.
Brambly Hedge
Another well-stocked kitchen


Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride

from Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo 2006
from Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo 2006

Every Saturday


Duck Cakes For Sale cosy kitchen01_600x571 Duck Cakes For Sale cosy kitchen02_600x560

The cosy kitchen is often chaotic, overflowing with food (and love and happiness).

Bush Picnic by Eveline Dare and John Richards (1970)

Here we have a happy nuclear family, but with a modern and sleek kitchen (1970 version). This appears in a picture book, but might just as well appear in an advertisement for stainless steel kettles or kitchen design.

Bush Picnic 1970 kitchen_600x369

Courage The Cowardly Dog (Horror Comedy TV Series 1999-)


The Duck Tale (1908)