Posted on August 22, 2013 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
Here be spoilers.
Kira-Kira is a young adult novel by Cynthia Kadohata. The book is told as a series of recollections spanning several years in the life of a Japanese-American girl named Katie. The book starts with the family relocating to Georgia after Katie's parents' grocery store goes out of business. It's a humbling experience for both mom and dad. Not only do they have to take menial positions with a local poultry farm, but the family gives up a home they loved for a tiny apartment in a company housing development. No one seems to mind much however, because they all love each other so much. Katie's especially close to her older sister, Lynn. Lynn sounds like one of those kids who'd inspire jealousy in younger siblings. Not only is she "a genuis," but also pretty, popular with boys and has a certain ethereal quality, too. She can look up at the sky or into someone's eyes and see something wonderful below the surface of both, a quality she called "kira-kira" (which means "glittering" in Japanese.) But Katie and Lynn's glittering childhood ends when the elder sister develops lymphoma and every day becomes a battle to survive. You can probably imagine the rest. The family rallying around the dying loved one is an old trope, and unfortunately Kadohata gives us nothing new here.
As a narrator, Katie is uninspired. She tells us she's a troublemaker, but other than she's lazy about schoolwork, there's really nothing objectionable about her. Nor is there anything noteworthy about her story. The trick to writing a book based on remembrances from a childhood is that those remembrances have to be special, magical or dramatic. But aside from Lynn's illness — which is so heavily foreshadowed from the first page of the book that it's downright anti-climatic when it arrives — Kira-Kira fails to engage the reader.
It's a shame, because there was so much potential here. Keep in mind the story takes place ten years after World War II, ten years after Japanese-Americans suffered the indignity of being placed in internment camps by their own government. It was the most organized and callous violation of human rights by the United States since the Indian Wars the century before – yet this is never mentioned in the book. Katie sometimes alludes to how white people don't talk to them or socialize with them, but overall she and her family are treated remarkably well in the deep South during the 1950s. It's as though the era of the Ku Klux Klan and public lynchings doesn't exist.
In fact, nothing really bad seems to happen in Katie's world. Her younger brother's caught in a leg-hold trap but is only slightly injured. When workers at the chicken plant try to organize a union under threat of violence, Katie's parents don't get involved. It's hard for them to pay Lynn's medical bills and meet the mortgage, but it's all good 'cause everyone just loves everyone else so darn much. There's nothing wrong with having love as a central theme in a book, but since drama comes from adversity, Kira-Kira has precious little to work with.
The book won the 2005 Newbery Award for outstanding fiction.