Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-kira is one of those books that I’ve felt guilty about for quite a while. It’s been on my “I really should read that” list for what feels like forever, so the Expanding Horizons Challenge finally inspired me to make it happen. I read Cracker for the Cybils MG Panel this year, and enjoyed it so much that I had high expectations for Kadohata’s first, Newbery-winning book.
Just about everyone and their dog has already read this book, so it feels goofy to summarize it here. However, for the uninitiated few, here it is in a couple of sentences. In the 1950s, the Takeshimas, a Japanese-American family, move from Iowa to Georgia where Mr. Takeshima begins working in a hatchery. The story follows the struggle of all of the family members as they work to grasp their meagre piece of the American dream. The novel is mostly about the profound relationship between Lynn, the elder sister, and Katie, the younger. From the start, Katie more or less worships Lynn, who is wise, kind and beautiful. When Lynn becomes seriously ill, the family’s future becomes all the more uncertain.
This would be a difficult book for a kid to summarize. The narrative is not a series of clearly linked events. It follows childhood memories, in the way that an adult would remember them, drifting from one to the next in a loose, but chronological, chain. Katie narrates the story, and her childish voice seems true and direct. Almost immediately, it’s pretty clear to the reader that there is no happy ending coming your way. This makes the book compelling, in that “I know something sad is going to happen here” sort of way. I was drawn into the story.
There are kids out there who like to read tragic books (in part explaining the tremendous interest many children show in Holocaust literature). Kira-Kira is a book for this child, because man, is it sad. A lot of hard topics stare you right in the face in this novel: racism, unjust working conditions, poverty, terminal illness. At the same time, it teaches in a subtle way about responsibility, grace, hope and courage in everyday life, and in the choices we make as friends, family and community members.
I don’t think this is a book for every young reader or teen. It’s not easy to read. It’s not a book that most boys would give the time of day to. It isn’t exactly packed with page-turning action. It’s a book for thinkers. It’s a book for contemplating. I can imagine that it could be a strong book for a girls’ reading group, or a literature circle, as I think that the true depth of the story would best be appreciated in discussion. I do think that some children will not be able to tackle it, however, as it will prove too depressing or too slow-moving to keep them turning the pages. This isn’t a book likely to sell itself, but when it finds its way into the right hands, I imagine that its hidden beauties will shine through.