This historical fiction, slice-of-life book by Cynthia Kadohata is published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division and is written for kids ages 10 to 14. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Katie loves her big sister, Lynn, who sees even ordinary things in the world as kira-kira, a Japanese word for glittering. Born in the U.S. to Japanese parents, the girls face prejudices at school and watch their parents endure hardships to make ends meet in a predominantly white culture. When Lynn gets sick, the parents scrape every dime together to buy the house Lynn has always dreamed of. As a preteen, Katie finds herself acting as caregiver for her little brother and dying sister while her parents work long hours at chicken processing plants. Lynn's ultimate death brings out a range of difficult emotions for the family, but as they begin to heal, they take a trip to California — a place where Lynn always wanted to live — in her honor.
Lynn tells Katie that her spirit is the invisible part of her.
Katie depicts her parents as extremely loving of their kids and of each other, which makes her feel safe. They resolutely instill values such as truth and honor into their kids and make every decision based on what they feel best serves the family. The wisdom of the parents' choices may be debatable, since they work long hours. This leaves them exhausted and forces the children to fend for themselves and miss school on many occasions. Uncle Katsuhisa is a slightly eccentric man who helps Katie's family move to Georgia from Iowa. He chews tobacco and teaches the girls to spit. He provides comfort for Katie at Lynn's funeral. Compassionate, thoughtful Lynn takes care of her little sister and is usually the one to tell her the hard facts of life. Katie sleeps with her baby brother sometimes so the oni (ogres who guard the gates of hell) won't take him in the night.
Other Belief Systems
The girls believe in a number of fantastic ideas such as a magic world, the possibility of creatures from outer space and the existence of Brenda, the ghost of a little girl who supposedly died in Brenda Swamp. Katie also suspects her mother can read her mind, so sometimes she thinks nonsense thoughts to throw Mom off. Uncle Katsuhisa tells Katie some Buddhists believe a person's spirit leaves earth 49 days after the body dies. On the 49th day after Lynn's death, Katie sees a falling leaf that she believes is a sign from her sister. The author paints a bleak picture of the chicken factories without unionization. In the end, even Katie's previously passive parents stand up for the union.
The words darn, b---ch, godd---n and a variation of s--- each appear once or twice.
While the family is camping, Katie's aunt and uncle retreat to their tent during the day “to make a baby,” according to their young son. This prompts Katie to mention the time she heard her parents through the door trying to make a baby. She says it must have been a lot of work in light of all the grunting. Katie imagines being locked in the bathroom with a boy she likes and having to sleep with him in the bathtub (nothing sexual is implied).
Newbery Medal Winner 2005; ALA Notable Children's Books 2005; Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, 2004-2005; and others.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Did it surprise you that Katie's family experienced so much prejudice?
- What have you read or heard about racial prejudice in our country, in the past and even today?
- Do you think Lynn made a positive impression on the world, even though her life was short?
- What were some things she did that helped and encouraged others?
- Katie had to make some difficult choices during the time Lynn was sick.
What were some things she did well?
What were some mistakes she made?
- Katie says she feels hate and anger toward Amber and the girls who shunned her sister.
Have you ever felt hatred toward someone?
- How does the Bible tell us to respond to our enemies?
- Katie's dad wrecks his boss's Cadillac. Later, even though he's unlikely to get caught, he takes Katie with him to the man's house and tells the truth. He says to Katie, "I don't ever want you to be afraid to apologize."
What do you think of his actions?
Did he do the right thing, or should he have kept his mouth shut so he wouldn't lose his job?
- What are some everyday sights or events that make life kira-kira (glittering) to you?
- Have you taken the opportunity to thank the one true God for creating beautiful things?
- Other items to note: A lady at the hotel where Katie's family stays is drunk, as are some neighbors after a New Year's Eve party. Katie's mom has to wear a sanitary pad because the factory workers aren't allowed to take unscheduled bathroom breaks. On several occasions, Katie mentions how she can smell her mother's urine-soaked pad. (The author uses this and other issues to point out the problems with the non-unionized factories in which Katie's parents work.) Katie steals nail polish for Lynn, writes letters from her "mother" to the school and lies about being sick in order to be with her sister.
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