I’m a new member here, so a quick introduction: Call me RioFrioTex. I'm a university librarian who manages (among other things) our Curriculum Collection, which includes children's lit to support future teachers. This past summer term, the children's lit class did a comparison project (pre-1970 vs. post-1970) with Newberys, and I decided I need to read more of them! Our library has copies of all the winners and most of the honor books as well. I have a 40-minute one-way commute, so I will do a lot of these as audiobooks. I started with a recent book that no one has reviewed yet: Kira-Kira, the 2005 winner by Cynthia Kadohata.
This story reads a bit like a memoir, narrated by Japanese-American Katie Takeshima, who tells about life in her family from the time she was about five, around 1956, to age 12. The story begins with the family moving. Her parents’ Oriental food store in Iowa has failed, and they are joining another family in Georgia where her father will work in a hatchery, and her mother in a poultry processing plant.
Katie idolizes her sister Lynn, who is four years older, and always able to see the brighter side of life. Lynn teaches Katie her first word, kira-kira, which means “glittering” in Japanese, and they use it to describe everything they find beautiful. The word is in stark contrast to the family’s hardships. It is post-World War II, and the family encounters discrimination (as I think they would have anywhere, not just small-town Georgia). A motel clerk in Nashville is rude and sends them to the crummy “Indian” part of the building – and charges $2 extra. The owner of the non-unionized hatchery and plant has questionable labor practices (Katie’s mother is forced to wear pads because she is not allowed any unscheduled breaks in her 12-hour shifts, and her father often sleeps overnight at the hatchery). And, as in so many Newbery novels, there is death: Lynn dies from lymphoma at age 15, on New Year’s Day, in about 1962. This happens on page 200 of this 244-page novel.
Much of the story deals with Katie eventually becoming the caregiver as Lynn becomes more ill and her parents work more hours to pay the medical bills and the mortgage on the house they bought with hopes that Lynn would get better. After her sister dies, Katie and her parents deal with their grief. At the end, Lynn’s kira-kira reminds them that hard work, hope, and determination make the world sparkle with promise.
The most vivid passage in the book is first referred to by Katie on page 1: “I used kira-kira to describe everything I liked: the beautiful blue sky, puppies, kittens, butterflies, colored Kleenex.” The latter is explained in a tender, heart-wrenching essay Katie writes about her sister after her death. But you’ll have to read that yourself.
Like Katie, Kadohata was born in the Midwest to Japanese-American parents. She grew up in small-town Arkansas and Georgia, where her father, like Katie's, worked long hours as a chicken "sexer," separating male and female hatchlings. In an interview (USA Today, January 18, 2005), Kadohata states, "It was a horrible, backbreaking job, and for some reason, all the chicken sexers were Japanese, and all the Japanese-Americans in town worked at the poultry plant," and she remembered "the sense of standing out." In another interview for School Library Journal (May 2005), she adds, “There are also a few details [in the book] that are true. Everybody in the hospital did come to see my [younger] brother when he was born because they had never seen a Japanese baby before.” When asked if she has an older sister, she replied, “I do, and she is still alive. She took care of us a lot, even though she is only a year and a half older than me. She had a maternal quality about her even then. So I always looked up to her.”
While the author says the book is aimed at ages 9 to 12, a number of public libraries classify this as a teen/young adult novel, as would I. I think it could appeal to younger females as well. Readers who prefer more plot will be disappointed; there’s very little that happens in the first half of the story, and little suspense overall. I think this book won the Newbery because it speaks to adults of the losses (and fear of loss) they have experienced, as well as remembrances of what it’s like to be a child. That’s why I liked the book. As mentioned in Sandy D.’s August 1 post, it is one of many winners that may not have a lot of “child appeal.”
This was a wonderful audiobook, however. Elaina Erika Davis, the reader, has a lovely, lyrical, passionate voice that made me feel Katie was actually speaking. She did an excellent job with Southern drawls (which the author says she did have, by the way) for Katie and Lynne, as well as Japanese-accented English for the adults. Relectant readers assigned this Newbery book might find it livelier and more humorous in audiobook format.