Cynthia Kadohata is a second-generation Japanese-American who like her main character Katie, grew up in the South, first in Georgia then Arkansas. She confesses to having such a thick southern accent like Katie that when she first traveled out of Arkansas, people had a hard time understanding her. She graduated with a degree in Journalism from the University of Southern California. Kira-kira, her first children’s book, which borrows heavily from her personal experiences, is the 2005 recipient of the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished children’s book of the year.
Kira-Kira is a story about the coming-of-age of Katie Takeshima whose journey begins with the life-changing move her family made from Iowa to Georgia. Woven throughout the story is the relationship between Katie and her older sister Lynn who taught her her first word and first life lesson, kira-kira. Kira-Kira in Japanese means glittering or shimmering. Katie used it to describe anything and everything that made her happy. Although you get the feeling straight from the first chapter of the book that Lynn, the older sister dies, you also get the sense that amid the sadness, kira-kira will shine through.
This book is smartly written and holds the intelligence of young readers and their capacity to see life as it really is, in highest regard. Ms. Kadohata is excellent at painting a picture of the setting; the 50’s in the South amid poverty, racism, and the close knit Japanese community. The reader, of any age, is transported and becomes emotionally involved in the story. The descriptions were so vivid that at times I could feel the sensations described. I can almost feel the warmth left over on the asphalt road as the sisters lie on their backs staring at the kira-kira of the evening stars. I could feel myself suffocating reading about Katie and her little brother Sam sitting in the car in the sweltering Georgia heat as their mother finished a shift and a half in a chicken processing plant. I felt embarrassment for the mother and for Katie as I could imagine the stench of urine in the car from the pad her mother is forced to wear because the non-union plant she worked for did not allow bathroom breaks as needed.
As a parent, I can empathize with the parent’s desire to provide for their children even at the expense of sacrificing the time spent with them. Because I read the book from the point of view of a parent, the incident with Mr. Lyndon is especially memorable because it is a testament to the ability of our children to make better people of us. Many people think that parenting is a one-way street, wisdom passing from parent to child. Truth is, parenting is just as much a learning experience for parents as it is for kids. Katie’s father broke his employer’s, Mr. Lyndon’s, car window out of anger and grief, and he could have gotten away with it. No one witnessed his act except for his daughter Katie. Mr. Lyndon may as well have been witness to the vandalism of his property. Our children are the greatest tools in keeping us honest. At the risk of losing his job, which he did, Katie’s father confessed to his crime because it was the right thing for him to do as a person and most of all as a father.
Kira-Kira is an endearing novel that had me smiling one moment and crying the next. Through all the hardship and sadness in Katie’s life, because she learned kira-kira early on, she had the strength to overcome life’s trials of the greatest magnitude and yet still see the shimmer. Kira-kira means there will always be something in life to make you happy. Kira-kira means hope.