Sunday, July 17, 2011

Kira-Kira, by by Cynthia Kadohata [2005]

My Rating: 6/10

Quick Summary: Despite the difficulties of growing up Japanese in 1950s Georgia, Katie Takeshima's big sister Lynn knows how to find the wonderful, glittering things ("kira-kira" in Japenese) in life.  But when Lynn gets cancer, Katie has to start finding her own way. has a trope called "Death by Newbery Medal," and unsurprisingly, this is one of the books that pops up on that list.  There's even a sub-quote about Kira-Kira by one of the tropers:
If a reader is Genre Savvy enough, they would notice the Newbery Medal insignia on the cover and open up to the very first page where the narrator talks about how special her sister is and how much she loves her and instantly reach a Foregone Conclusion.
As mentioned, there were enough clues that Lynn was going to die, so that when the actual event occurred, I didn't find it too upsetting (which is good, considering I was on a plane, and crying next to a random stranger while reading a children's book might have been a tad embarrassing).

The death was also handled realistically, and well, and in some ways, was the most well-fleshed out part of the book.  Outside of that storyline, there were so many tantalizing bits about culture and identity, not to mention the bonds of family.  But a lot of the book never fulfilled its promise- there were all those hints, and nothing more.

However, unlike some authors I've recently discussed, Kadohata did a good job of establishing place, time, and character.  Katie and Lynn are both fully realized, dynamic characters.  I'm a younger sister myself (though I have older brothers, not sisters), so I frequently identified with Katie's adoration of her older sibling intermixed with frustration and misunderstandings.

Kadohata also handled the way a young child would see the racial issues of Georgia in the 50s deftly.  There's a particularly well-written scene where the family is attempting to check into a hotel, and the woman at the desk keeps misidentifying their origins, only caring that they aren't white.  Katie's frustration and lack of complete understanding is letter perfect and really hits you where it hurts.

This was the author's first foray into middle grade fiction, and I think it shows.  There are moments when it feels like she was writing more for adults, and as mentioned above, some aspects of the book are never fully fleshed out.  Again, though- while it was a very human book with some excellent qualities, I have to question just what it was that caused it to be named the Newbery Medal book of the year, because honestly, I didn't find it particularly outstanding.  (Although we at least finally got some non-WASPy characters- the first so far on this list.)  Just because a children's book deals with death in an honest and human way should not mean it automatically deserves an award.

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