Yearning for the Light

Nurit Zarchi creates an exquisite imaginary kingdom that seems so natural we can easily imagine the sight of two giraffes riding a tandem bicycle.

Shtei Jirafot Beyom Shemesh Mazhir (“Two Giraffes on a Shiny Sunny Day”), by Nurit Zarchi. Hakibbutz Hameuchad (Hebrew),
23 pages, NIS 69

“I want it to never get dark,” says Shira the giraffe at the beginning of this charming children’s book, and this simple phrase succinctly sums up the profound, well-known fear that many children have of the dark and of closing their eyes.

That is why Shira and Mira, the long-necked animals that are the title characters of “Two Giraffes on a Shiny Sunny Day,” set off on a frantic quest to find the Light Switch.

The Light Switch (madlek ha’or in Hebrew) is a delightful concept that perhaps only children can truly understand: It refers to a switch that one can press on the sun, which, in turn, presses down on our eyelids until they are almost closed and we can see all the colors of the spectrum passing before us.

How do Shira and Mira set off on their search for the Light Switch? They get on a tandem bicycle, of course. The problem is that their bike causes them many problems, prompting them to argue with each other and suffer bumps and bruises. Finally, a police officer who happens to be passing by intercedes and asks them, “What are you arguing about? ... Please tell me and we will find out what the problem is.” Shira and Mira, however, are not afraid of him; nor are they willing to let him rule their lives. “How would you know?” Shira rudely asks him. “We’re riding a bicycle, and you’re a pedestrian.”

This is part of the charm of “Shiny Sunny Day”: the way Shira and Mira flagrantly flout traffic laws and the regulations governing law and order. But it is also delightful because of its simplicity a poetic kind of simplicity. This book, as well as the equally charming volume that preceded it in this series “Two Giraffes on a Loony Night” (“Shtei Jirafot Belail Yare’ach Malei”) are like the show that a little girl might put on with her giraffe puppets or like the story that a mother tells her little daughter and, which, in accordance with her daughter’s request, is about the child’s giraffe puppets.

Hilla Havkin’s illustrations suit the text exquisitely, and do more than just decorate the pages. They establish an entire world that envelops the lives of the giraffes and complements their story. In the first book in the series, the title characters had two companions: a little girl dressed in winter clothes and an ostrich. In the new book, they are accompanied by a little boy, a hare dressed in blue and a spotted cat.

In “Loony Night,” Shira and Mira were very hungry, and the face of the moon looked like the kind of food they love to eat: an omelet, a piece of candy or a pizza pie. And they make every possible effort to reach that shiny, tasty food way up there in the sky. The book’s nature is definitely wintry. The new book, however, is summery dripping with perspiration (metaphorically speaking, of course) and quick-tempered. But in both stories, what the giraffes yearn for, in essence, is light. But Shira and Mira never reach the goal of their quest in either of the volumes, which are long and thin like the title characters themselves.

Whereas in the earlier book the giraffes acted like twins who love one another very much, or at least are very close friends, in “Shiny Sunny Day” it’s clear from the moment they get on the tandem that they will not be able to pedal in perfect coordination. Instead, their attempt to do so causes them to wobble and to collide with a fence; they are thrown off the bicycle several times, landing on the shoulder of the road. Finally, they get to a point where Shira says, “I’m afraid to get on the bicycle,” and Mira says, “And I’m afraid of falling.” But, because they must find the Light Switch, they decide to remount the tandem and resume riding this time with their eyes closed, “because what you can’t see can’t frighten you.”

That’s when they fall into a ditch. When they open their eyes, they discover that their tandem bicycle has split into two unicycles. Just as Shira despairs, saying, “This is awful we’ll never find the Light Switch,” Mira has a brilliant epiphany: “What are you talking about? Now we’ll for sure find the Light Switch, because now each of us has her own unicycle.” With each of them riding like an acrobat on her own vehicle, the giraffes are able to continue on their journey to find the Light Switch, as they sing a lighthearted, happy giraffe song.

In “Loony Night,” Shira and Mira decide to abandon the idea of eating the moon (“that half-eaten doughnut,” “that torn pancake”), even though they come very close to reaching their goal. Instead, they set off to find a place where they can have some ice cream. In “Shiny Sunny Day,” they continue in pursuit of the Light Switch once their bicycle splits in two, but we have no way of knowing whether they will, in fact, attain that goal.

It seems as if Nurit Zarchi, who is so skillful at creating an imaginary kingdom that feels completely natural, has held a saltshaker over her two books about Shira and Mira, and gently allowed tiny grains of imagination-generating salt to fall on the world. Nothing seems more natural than seeing Shira and Mira stop off at a shopping mall, on their way to the Light Switch, to buy two safety pins so that no will be able to glimpse their underwear while they ride.