by Cynthia Kadohata

“My sister Lynn taught me my first word: Kira-kira . . . glittering in Japanese.”... read more

“My sister Lynn taught me my first word: Kira-kira . . . glittering in Japanese.” Cynthia Kadohata’s first novel for children embodies the meaning of its title. It is a graceful, lyrical, unflinching and illuminating look at a Japanese American family living in challenging personal and social times. Set in the South in the 1950s and early 1960s, the novel is told from the point of view of Katie, who is almost five when the story begins. Katie relies on her older sister, Lynn, to help interpret the world for her. It was Lynn who taught Katie the word “kira-kira,” before Katie could even speak. It is Lynn who explains that the kids at their mostly white school won’t want to play with her. It is Lynn who dreams of seeing the ocean and going to college and who shares those dreams with Katie. Katie’s funny, innocent voice and point of view are remarkable as they change to reflect her growth through childhood and into adolescence and her deepening understanding of individuals and events in her life over the ten-year span of the story. Things she could not possibly comprehend at five become clearer as she matures, unfolding in scenes that range from comic to poignant, painful to tragic. Only Katie’s view of Lynn (and of her little brother—who adores her much like she adores Lynn) remains constant, even though Katie knows she can never live up to Lynn’s perfection. After Lynn becomes gravely ill, Katie watches her parents toil beyond the point of exhaustion under the horrendous working conditions in the poultry industry as they grasp at any hope to make Lynn well. When Lynn dies, it seems as if they have all been cast into darkness. But Lynn’s illness and death, and the diary she leaves behind for Katie, help Katie understand her sister in a new way. She discovers things that seemed so easy for Lynn were the result of her sister’s hard work and her determination to see life itself as something shining. The word Lynn first taught Katie proves to be her most lasting gift: a profound way of being in the world. (Ages 10–14)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2005

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