Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. Kira-Kira. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0689856393
What happens when a Japanese family must relocate to Georgia to survive, and their world falls apart no matter what they try to do to keep it intact? This is the story of Katie Takeshima and her family. The family moves to a Georgia so her parents can work in poultry factories. Katie relies upon her older sister Lynn for knowledge of their world. Lynn relies upon Katie to take care of her. As the story unfolds, the reader sees how unfair life can be, even to good people.
The title of the book is explained in the first paragraphs of the book. "Kira-kira means 'glittering' in Japanese" (1). This is Katie's first word and one she uses to describe her world. However, it is really her sister Lynn that sees the beauty in the world around her, even when she is dying. I enjoyed how Kadohata included Japanese words in her narrative. This made the story more believable and realistic.
Kira-kira is also a contrast to the actual world of the Takeshima family. They are close, but it seems external forces keep knocking them down. First their store closes, and they must move to Georgia for work. The conditions described in the book of these poultry plants are horrible. "The factory workers weren't allowed to take unscheduled breaks, so they all wore pads in case they needed to use the bathroom" (97). The family tries to save money to buy a house, but Lynn's medical condition causes them to work more. "My father's hours changed sometimes. His newest schedule was to work for ten to twelve hours, then eat and sleep a few hours at the hatchery, and then get up and work six hours. When he wasn't working at his main hatchery, he worked in a different one in another town" (84).
Through Katie's story, we see the prejudice of the 1950s Deep South. When driving from Iowa to Georgia, the family stops at a motel for sleep. The innkeeper ignores the family at first, calls them Indians and then charges them "two dollars extra" for the room (28). Lynn warns Katie that "some of the kids at school may not say hello to you" (50) which Katie doesn't understand. Once she enters school, she quickly learns that her sister was correct. She is treated differently because she is Japanese.
Katie understands the poultry industry supports Georgia's economy, "but that didn't stop many people who did not work with poultry from looking down on those who did" (88). Katie is treated differently at school because her parents worked at the poultry plants and "the fact that I was Japanese were the two reasons the girls at school ignored me" (88). Katie and her brother Sam often went to work with their mother because there was no one to take care of them. The kids stayed in the car while the mom worked inside.
Kadohata does a terrific job describing how this Japanese family endures the hardships of the time and survives. They are treated unfairly by their employers and the townspeople. With each chapter, the family seems to struggle more and more and then the unthinkable happens. Their child Lynn has cancer and dies. The grief the family feels is so real, but it seems that even with this injustice, they cannot afford to grieve. They must go to work. "My mother and father became like zombies. They ate but didn't seem to taste their food....It looked as if we might lose the house because my parents still owed money on Lynn's medical bills" (226).
Emotionally, this was a hard book to read. I felt like I was with the family in these sixteen chapters. I could identify with Katie and how she felt like the black sheep because she wasn't Lynn. "I got straight C's at school....Lynn got straight A's. She loved school" (62). I felt the fatigue the parents felt by working so much to try and keep a roof over the family. I was shocked when I found out that Lynn had lymphoma. I felt the joy of baby Sam being born and then later of his leg being caught in the trap. I felt the father's anger at "the system" when his daughter died, and he had to release his anger on Mr. Lyndon's car. I was confused with Katie when her dad went to apologize. "'Apologize! But he doesn't know it was you! Dad! He doesn't even know. You don't have to apologize!' He looked at me as if he was very disappointed I'd said that. I didn't care. I just wanted to protect my father" (231).
Kadohata includes handwritten passages to represent the diary entries of Lynne or the essays Katie writes for school. Using this technique makes the passages seem like the young girls are the writers.
Review excerptsPUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "Katie's narrative begins almost as stream-of-consciousness, reflecting a younger child's way of seeing the world. But as she matures through the challenges her family faces, so does the prose. Kadohata movingly captures the family's sustaining love."
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "This novel has the immediacy of an autobiographical account of love and loss and presents insightful glimpses of questionable labor practices and post-World War II discrimination against Japanese-Americans."
*Research how Japanese-Americans were treated throughout the United States during and after World War II. Was the South the only place of discrimination? What other places were Japanese-Americans allowed to work and what were the conditions?
*Research how other minority groups were treated post World War II.