“Kira-Kira” by Cynthia Kadohata

29 May


Kira-kira means "shining" or "glittering" in Japanese. It's a word that Japanese-American sisters Katie and Lynn use to describe much of their world growing up in 1950s Iowa and Georgia. Blue skies, corn fields, butterflies, starry nights, and even colored tissues floating to the ground are all kira-kira.

At the beginning of the story, as Katie is about six and Lynn a few years older, the family moves to a cramped apartment in southern Georgia after their small store in Iowa fails. Katie's small, fragile mother and her strong, quiet, capable father each take jobs at local chicken hatcheries, requiring them to work long, exhausting hours. Katie is generally happy growing up in Georgia, even if she occasionally feels shunned by her classmates for not being white. Katie and Lynn stay close as the years pass, even as their parents are increasingly absent; as a little brother, Sam, joins the family; and as Lynn gets a white best friend, Amber, and a white boyfriend. Although Katie sometimes feels babied or dismissed by her sister, she still loves spending time with the smart, sweet, generally kind-hearted Lynn.

Unfortunately, as time passes, it's clear that something is very wrong with Lynn. She becomes weak, fatigued, and sick, needing to spend more and more time resting in bed. Over the years, Lynn's illness starts to break the family apart financially and emotionally. For example, as Lynn becomes gravely ill and is frequently hospitalized, Katie and Sam must often spend their days in the sweltering family car outside the hatchery, waiting for their mother to get off work. When Lynn is home, Katie stops attending school regularly and becomes something of a live-in caretaker / nurse for her sister. In the end, the family must find a way to survive Lynn's illness, and Katie must find a way to become the person her sister knows she can be.

"Kira-Kira" is a beautifully written story about sisters, family, survival, sacrifice, and, in a strange way, hope. It won a well-deserved Newbery Medal in 2005, which is the highest honor in American children's literature. Although "Kira-Kira" describes a Japanese-American family in a very specific place and time, the story is universal, meaning that all readers should be able to relate to the characters and themes involved here. Katie, in particular, is a wonderful character — brave, compassionate, and, at times, impatient and even cruel. Yet these flaws only make her all that more real for the reader. This is a fantastic middle-school level novel that will stay with most readers long after they are finished.

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Posted by on May 29, 2007 in Uncategorized


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