"It didn't matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home."
-Lev Grossman, The Magician's Land

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Kira-Kira - A Novel of Love and Hope in the Face of Tragedy

Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. Kira-Kira. New York: Atheneum Books For Young Readers.  ISBN 0-689-85639-3

The year is 1956.  Katie, a young Japanese American girl, has spent the first five years of her life living in a Japanese community in Iowa with her family.  When her parents' Oriental foods grocery store goes out of business, however, they decide to pack up and move to Georgia, where her uncle lives.  

Life in Georgia is very different.  Her family moved from a comfortable house in Iowa to a cramped apartment.   Katie's parents work all the time.   The other children at school ignore her.  Her only real friend is her older sister, Lynn.  Katie idolizes Lynn.  She is a shining star who seems to know everything about everything.  Katie feels happiest when she is with Lynn and always tries to please her.  

Everything changes when Lynn gets sick.  At first, she just seems tired all the time and needs extra rest.  The purchase of their own home breathes new life into Lynn, but as more time passes, it becomes clear that she is not getting any better.  The hospital bills start to pile up and Katie's parents fall behind on their mortgage payments.  They work more and more hours, but it's still not enough.

Katie's life is filled with a combination of worry, uncertainty, and despair.  What is wrong with her sister, and will she ever get better?  And how can she prevent her family from falling apart?

A sign of a remarkable author is the ability to make the reader both laugh and cry, and Cynthia Kadohata does just that in her stunning novel.  She uses the power of voice to make Katie a memorable and relatable character.  Katie is a typical young girl who would rather spend time with her older sister than do her homework.  Her observations of the world around her are often amusing.  She has a family who loves her and would do anything for her.  And while her family may be poor financially, their lives are rich with love.  Readers will root for Katie to succeed because she is so likable.

Kadohata's portrayal of the racism the Takeshimas face is accurate based on the setting of the novel.  The receptionist at the motel mistakes the Japanese American family for Indian and then Mexican.  She offers them a room at the back of the motel but charges them two dollars extra for it.  The only people who are friendly to the family in Georgia are the other Japanese Americans.  The white people ignore them or point and stare.  Mrs. Takeshima experiences this vividly when she gives birth to Sam.  The nurses in the hospital can't stop staring at the "cute Japanese" baby, but are purposely neglectful to her.  Both Lynn and Katie have a difficult time making friends, and it is a big deal when Amber, a white girl, befriends Lynn.

Kadohata intersperses Japanese words within the text.  The title of the novel, Kira-Kira, is Japanese for "glittering," and this word is meaningful to both Lynn and Katie.  Lynn dreams of moving to California and seeing the kira-kira sea, and for Katie, it was the first word she learned.  The older characters have Japanese names.  Kadohata also makes note of the most important holiday in her culture, New Year.  The most devastating event in the novel actually takes place on New Year.

I look forward to reading more of this prolific author's work.

2005 Newbery Medal Winner

2005 Asian Pacific American Literature Award Winner

2005 ALA Notable Book

From BOOKLIST - "In her first novel for young people, Kadohata stays true to the child's viewpoint in plain, beautiful prose that can barely contain the passionate feelings. Just as heart wrenching as the sisters' story is what Katie knows of her father's struggle, whether it's his backbreaking work in the factory or his love for his family. The quiet words will speak to readers who have lost someone they love—or fear that they could."

From SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL - "Told from Katie's point of view and set in the 1950s, this beautifully written story tells of a girl struggling to find her own way in a family torn by illness and horrendous work conditions. Katie's parents can barely afford to pay their daughter's medical bills, yet they refuse to join the growing movement to unionize until after Lynn's death. All of the characters are believable and well developed, especially Katie, who acts as a careful observer of everything that happens in her family, even though there is a lot she doesn't understand. Especially heartbreaking are the weeks leading up to Lynn's death, when Katie is exhausted and frustrated by the demands of her sister's illness, yet willing to do anything to make her happy. Girls will relate to and empathize with the appealing protagonist."

From PUBLISHERS WEEKLY - "This novel shines."

If your students enjoyed this novel, have them read another of Kadohata's titles:
  • Kadohata, Cynthia. The Thing About Luck. ISBN 978-1416918820
  • Kadohata, Cynthia. Weedflower. ISBN 978-0689865749
  • Kadohata, Cynthia. A Million Shades of Gray. ISBN 978-1416918837

Have your students write a journal entry describing what school was like for Katie.  

Have your students research why New Year is the most important holiday in the Japanese culture.

Ask your students to think about what might happen next for Katie and her family.  Will her parents still be struggling with money?  Have them write an epilogue of what the family is doing a year from when the novel ends.

Share this video with your students of Cynthia Kadohata discussing the novel.


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