This was not the first time I read Cynthia Kadohata’s Kira-Kira. I first read it back in 2008. I hadn’t read a Newbery winner in a while. I honestly could not tell you what made me pick up a random Newbery winner from 3 years before that. I think I was trying to be a little more up-to-date on middle grade books, as I was just starting work at the bookstore. And while I certainly wasn’t that excited about Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! (but boy was I wrong about that) I don’t know what made me skip over The Higher Power of Lucky and Criss-Cross, and, frankly, all the other middle grade novels published around that time and pick this up. It looks like a quiet little book about Japanese-American girls, which is exactly what it is. That is not usually my bag.
When I read it 5+ years ago, though, I remember really liking it. The characters and setting are unique. Katie, the narrator, is the child of Japanese immigrants who live in the midwest in the 1960s. It’s a perspective you don’t get much in children’s literature. The pacing is leisurely, but not too slow. Katie is a thoughtful and interesting narrator. She has a distinctly young voice for middle grade, and she is flawed by the usual small child flaws, such ignorant carelessness and lack of perspective, but she grows and changes a lot with respect to these flaws. The way she talks about her family is uniquely gentle and reverent and thoughtful. Her voice about these relationships is really what makes this book so special. I think I was the most affected by it when I read it the first time, though, because I (somehow) didn’t expect the ending. And so after the jump, if you’ve read the book before, or if you’re not so dense as I am and are perfectly able to anticipate, frankly, quite-predictable endings, read on. If you haven’t read it, though, stop now, because knowing the ending definitely took some of the joy out of it for me.
So, upon second reading, it seems painfully obvious from page one that Katie’s sister, Lynn, is dead. As in, I felt like a complete idiot for reading this book once through and not realizing it before.
When Lynn died the first time I read it, I was crushed. I found the whole scene deeply moving. On the second read, I remembered the ending, and also every single page was reminding me along the way that Lynn was dead. Katie narrates the story with a keen awareness of Lynn’s not being there anymore. That took some of the enjoyment out of it for me. The whole book was a constant reminder of grief, rather than an undulating sea of emotions.
Plus, this was tenth Newbery winner in a row I had read. The constant “touching emotions” grief train was getting a little stale.
Would kids like it? Yes. Especially children of immigrants who haven’t seen their stories told often, or children who have experienced loss. This could be a really important and helpful book for a lot of kids who need to see their emotions and experiences reflected in literature. It’s not a universal crowd-pleaser, though.
Are there “funny bits”? Sweet lord, no.
Do I understand why it won? Definitely. It ticks off pretty much every single Newbery cliche: Emotional narrator and “touching” story; narrator of not-often-seen-in-kids-books ethnicity; slow, quiet story. It’s also quite good. It was a tough year, though. I’m not convinced I would have voted for this over Al Capone Does My Shirts and Lizzy Bright and the Buckminster Boy, which both got honors that year.