The writing on the very first page changed my reluctance to read it, though I still had some reservations about the death later in the story. The cover, I actually like now (after reading the book) - go figure. Though I still think it could use a little more color.
My sister, Lynn, taught me my first word: kira-kira....Kira-kira means "glittering" in Japanese. Lynn told me that when I was a baby, she used to take me onto our empty road at night, where we would lie on our backs and look at the stars while she said over and over, "Katie say 'kira-kira, kira-kira.' " I loved that word! When I grew older, I used kira-kira to describe everything I liked: the beautiful blue sky, puppies, kittens, butterflies, colored Kleenex (pg. 1).Kira-Kira is the story of a Japanese-American family in the U.S. heartland in the 50's and 60's. The Takeshima family lives in rural Iowa, but moves to small town Georgia, where Katie and Lynn's father gets a job as a chicken-sexer (identifying the sex of newly hatched chicks), and her mother works in a chicken-processing plant. As you might expect, racism, the experience of second generation immigrant kids, and brutally hard work play important roles in the story. All of this really takes second stage to the characters and Kadohata's writing, though. Her descriptions never failed to surprise me. Take this description of the girls' strange Uncle Katsuhisa, who attempts to distract his nieces from crying about moving to Georgia (and not being able to find their favorite things in storage during the ride), by teaching them to spit like he does:
Lynn and I tried to rumble our throats like him.The intimate, often funny portrayals of the Takeshima family reminded me (very favorably!) of The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis (the 1996 Newbery Honors book), which also deals with the banality and ubiquity of racism in a totally matter-of-fact manner.
"Hocka-hocka-hocka!" he said.
Lynn and I copied him: "Hocka-hocka-hocka!"
He turned to his open window, and an amazing wad of brown juice flew from his mouth. The brown juice was like a bat bursting out of a cave. We turned around to watch it speed away. A part of me hoped it would hit the car behind us, but it didn't. I leaned over Lynn and out the passenger window. "Hyaaahhhh!" I said, and a little trickle of saliva fell down my chin (p. 22).
And it turns out that Kadohata's account of Lynn's death was sad, but it was not trite or Reader's Digest-like at all. The ending was beautiful, in fact, and very satisfying:
Now and then I thought I heard Lynn's lively voice. The cricket sang "Chirp! Chirp!" but I heard "Kira-kira!" ....My sister had taught me to look at the world that way, as a place that glitters, as a place where the calls of the crickets and the crows and the wind are everyday occurrences that also happen to be magic (p. 243-4).There are a lot of rather adult references in Kira-Kira, and the lack of action and a meandering storyline in much of the book will not endear it to younger readers, anyway. But I think it's a wonderful choice for teens, especially girls. Adult readers who like this may also want to check out Bento Box in the Heartland, by Linda Furiya - a memoir (with recipes!) set a few years later than Kira-Kira, by the daughter of another chicken-sexer.