Chichi’s Magic and the Books of Childhood

My namesake’s third birthday is coming up on Valentine’s Day, and when thinking about a gift, I thought back to the presents I enjoyed as a child. Books, same as now. First to come to mind was Chichi’s Magic, about a mischievous monkey (is there any other kind?) in the Central American jungle who finds a mirror—the magic. My uncle worked for The Steck Company, a commercial printing firm that served banks, schools, and the like, but also published a series of children’s books called “Woodland Frolics,” and Chichi’s Magic was one of them. Part of the joy of the book was that it came from him. Possessed by nostalgia, I ordered the book from ALibris. It arrived. I flipped through it, loving the pictures, but hesitated to read it again. Maybe it wouldn’t be as charming as I remembered. What I do remember now seems so fragmentary and idiosyncratic. Chichi wanders the countries of Central America. I learned their names. Chichi encounters ancient Mayan ruins, which laid the foundation for a lifelong fascination with pre-Columbian civilizations. Chichi encounters a beautiful green quetzal—a strange word for a fourth-grader—and I recall its extravagant tail. But the book is clearly too advanced for the birthday girl, so will be lovingly saved until she’s older. Another book I hope to share with her is one I read many times, Heidi. I associate her with delicious goat’s milk cheese and the sweet aroma of spring flowers in alpine meadows. Still today it’s hard to resist a charming round cheese in the dairy case. I remember Heidi as the first time I was bothered by having pictures in a storybook, because the artist’s drawings did not match the vision in my head. Reading their books repeatedly, children acquire images and associations that in later life may take some digging to uncover. Hidden threads woven into the mental fabric.

Exploring Further: A blog post by another person who fell under the spell of Chichi’s Magic

Scholastic’s “Celebrity Bookprints,” where some 300 celebrities–from Bill Clinton to Mehmet Oz to R.L. Stine—describe the five books that have been most important to them.