The Tea Party in the Woods: A Tender Modernist Fairy Tale by Japanese Artist Akiko Miyakoshi
A gentle taunt at the line between what is real and what is imagined.
By Maria Popova
To be human is to sometimes slip, then wish for a way to undo our mishaps and magically fix our mistakes. Japanese children’s book author and artist Akiko Miyakoshi explores this profoundly human impulse with uncommon subtlety and tenderness in The Tea Party in the Woods (public library) — a quietly whimsical modernist fairy tale with the imaginative other-worldliness of Alice in Wonderland, but without Carroll’s flamboyant farcicality; with the red-capped woods-wandering heroine of Little Red Riding Hood, but without the Grimms’ goriness. At the story’s heart is a gentle taunt at the line between what is real and what is imagined — a line we cross daily in ways minute and monumental by virtue of continually constructing the thing we call reality.
We meet young Kikko, who awakens one morning to find that her father has left for Grandma’s house but has forgotten the pie he was supposed to bring. Eager to help, Kikko grabs the pie-box and runs after him through the winter wonderland, following his tracks through the woods.
At last, she spots ahead of her a silhouette in a hat and a long black coat. But as she breaks into a run to catch up, Kikko trips into the deep snow and falls, crushing the pie box.
Devastated, she picks up the box and runs after her father, following him to a strange big house she hadn’t noticed before.
Upon seeing him go inside, she sneaks up to the window and peeks in. And then reality slips into the surreal — the coated figure turns out to have been not her father but “a great big bear,” now taking off his hat to greet an elegant doe in a white gown.
As Kikko struggles to make sense of the strangeness unfolding before her, another reality-warping creature approaches her.
A lady-lamb in a pea coat, carrying a purse, asks in a kind voice whether Kikko is there for the tea party too, then gently takes the girl’s hand and leads her into the house. Inside, Kikko finds herself amid an astonishing world — a coterie of animals, seated around a giant table in anticipation of some mysterious festivity.
They welcome the bewildered and timorous Kikko, take her coat, serve her tea, and make her the occasion’s special guest.
And then, slice by slice, they assemble a new pie onto her plate, each made with different berries and nuts gathered from the woods.
The doe packs this combinatorial creation into a new box, carefully ties it with a red ribbon, and hands it to Kikko as the animal party escorts the girl back out into the woods and sends her off with a joyful parade toward Grandma’s house to deliver the magically recovered pie.
As she steps into Grandma’s house, Kikko looks over her shoulder — but all the animals have disappeared and her world has returned to its familiar winter quietude.
Complement The Tea Party in the Woods with another Japanese masterwork of exceptional tenderness: Komako Sakai’s extraordinary reimagining of The Velveteen Rabbit.
Illustrations courtesy of Akiko Miyakoshi / Kids Can Press
Published October 30, 2015