Katie Takeshima, born in the early 1950s in Iowa, loves her older sister, Lynn, more than anything in the world. It is Lynn who teaches her to recognize kira-kira (glittering, shining) in the world: in the blue sky, in the stars, and even in people. But when the family is forced to move to Georgia because of financial troubles, Katie has to struggle to find kira-kira in the streets of the small southern town.
Because both her parents work long hours at the chicken hatchery, Katie rarely sees them, but she knows that Lynn will always be there after school to watch over her and their little brother, Sammy. When Lynn becomes seriously ill at the age of fourteen, the family can barely hold on, and Katie must discover her own hidden strengths.
In Kira-Kira, Cynthia Kadohata beautifully explores the postwar years through the eyes of Katie Takeshima. Katie not only is the middle child but is also in the middle between her more traditionally Japanese parents and contemporary American culture. Although Katie doesn't see herself as being different from anyone else, when the family moves to the South, they are subject to prejudice, and the family is lost somewhere in limbo: not quite white and not quite black or Native American. Whether at school or checking into a hotel, the Takeshimas don't quite fit in.
The story is told as a flashback, so we know from the beginning that Lynn will die before Katie does, but Katie's memories are more than just a loving tribute to her older sister. From a child's perspective we learn that the 1950s were not golden years for everyone in America. The poor were exploited by the rich, and prosperity didn't come easily to all citizens. Katie herself is far from perfect, and she recalls her resentment and jealousy over how much attention her parents bestowed on Lynn and how painful it was when her sister became a teenager and found friends outside the family.
In Katie's transformation from innocent child to one of her sister's principal caretakers, she never lets go of the concept of kira-kira that was so important to Lynn. By the end, Katie tries to remind her family that there is still beauty in the world and, in turn, starts to understand some of the comfort found in embracing traditional Japanese customs.
Kira-Kira is a wonderfully written coming-of-age story, and Kadohata is becoming one of my favorite young adult authors. The novel has won almost twenty awards, including the ALA Newbery Medal. A study guide is available for teachers and homeschoolers; book clubs will appreciate the online reading guide.
I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Listening Library; 4 hr, 29 min) read by Elaina Erika Davis. Davis's vocalization sounds young enough to be believable as Katie without being annoyingly juvenile. She handles the accents--Midwest, Southern, Japanese--easily, and her varied pacing and pitch adds to the story.
Published by Simon & Schuster / Aladdin Paperbacks, 2007
Source: Bought (see review policy)
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This review will be linked to Kid Konnection a regular Saturday feature at Booking Mama that focuses on anything related to chidren's books.