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2005 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:

(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of critical importance.)

Kira-Kira means "glittering" or "shining" in Japanese. The term is also the title of the 2005 Newbery Award-winning book by Cynthia Kadohata—her first novel for young people.

Kira-Kira joins the ranks of over eighty medal winners, honored for their distinguished contribution to the body of children’s literature. And so the question follows: Does Kira-Kira shine?

The plot is easy enough to follow. Katie Takeshima tells us in first person about her family’s struggles as Japanese-Americans in the 1950s. The story begins in Iowa where her parents own a small and failing Oriental grocery store. By the end of chapter one, the family is leaving Iowa and moving to a Japanese community in southern Georgia where both parents will work long hours in a chicken hatchery and where each member of the family will face racism in some form as the book progresses. When a brother, Samson Ichiro, is born, Mother must immediately return to work, so a neighbor lady cares for Sammy with after-school help from Lynn and Katie. Time passes, and the family continues to labor for a hand-to-mouth existence. Lynn excels in school; Katie does not. Lynn’s health begins to fail, and she is diagnosed with lymphoma. In chapter thirteen she dies, but her death brings clarity and closure to each character in different ways. Katie’s father eventually suggests a family vacation—regardless of the expense and time off the job. When the family arrives in California, they walk along the waters of the Pacific Ocean where Katie finally feels happy. It is here in the ocean waves that she can hear her sister’s voice calling "kira-kira."

Katie is transparent about her own few strengths and her many weaknesses. She tells us candidly that before she was even twelve-years-old she had committed the three worst things her parents said a person could do—hit someone, steal, and lie. Her aspirations are few, and her ability to see kira-kira is nonexistent.

Lynn is presented as the admirable big sister. She is bright and capable and always prodding Katie to do better at something—anything. Lynn teaches Katie about kira-kira, and it is Lynn herself who can find kirakira—in the sky, in the sea, and deep in other people’s eyes. It is easy to feel compassion for these people.

But we cannot stop there. The theme or primary idea that holds this story together is that life is hard—very hard—and that anything pleasant or satisfying or worthy is difficult to come by. Compare that theme to values we draw from Scripture. While it is true that life is just this harsh for some, we know as believers that our steps are ordered by our Lord. And if that is so, then we can experience pleasure and satisfaction and worth, even when our path seems rocky or the sky looks dark.

Should children read about the difficulties of others? Is there merit to thinking about the hardships faced by characters in other times and in different places? Certainly. A quick review of the word consider in a Bible commentary will take us to passages that demonstrate the value of considering many things, including our own lives and the lives of others. The emphasis of these verses, however, is not just to consider the facts of what a particular life is like but to make an application from those facts—what a life ought to be. When a child reads a book, the question to ask is this: Will he want to be more noble, productive, or compassionate after reading this story? Kira-Kira does not have that power.

Ms. Kadohata delivers her story with harsh honesty. She has said in multiple media interviews that the story is at least partly autobiographical, and while that is probably very true, its realism is sometimes crass, sometimes brutal, and sometimes full of despair. The book is bluntly frank as it portrays the conditions at home and in the chicken hatchery—even going so far as to discuss topics such as the indignities Katie’s mother suffered in a factory system that did not allow for restroom breaks. Honest? Maybe. Necessary? Not for most. A book for children should be uplifting in its honesty. And yes, a book can be both honest and uplifting. It is all in the delivery.

No one but the author can know for sure the author’s motivation for telling her story, but Kira-Kira seems to have this agenda: feel bad for what you did to my people. And while some citizens faced the terrible events in post-World War II America that the book shows, a broader understanding of history is needed here. The story told in Kira-Kira is not simply about a moment in history for which we must be sorry, but that cannot change.For a book to be truly useful for children, it must put its one point on the eternal timeline of "His Story"—a much larger story that is filled with light and hope. This book is a dark book, and the tone is troubling, especially when we read on the flyleaf that this is "middle-grade fiction."

The author did serve up an honest slice of Americana. The plot is interesting in its way, and the characters who people it are believable. Some reviewers of the book have seen a lighter story of love and family and quiet humor. Are these elements there? Yes, but they were shadowed over with despair and hopelessness.

Katie does discover kira-kira, but she must go back to life as it was. What small moment of shining she had will quickly evaporate. I am not uplifted; I am worried. So as much as I want it to, Kira-Kira does not shine for me.

 by Nancy Lohr. Updated October 21, 2015.