Laurinda’s Rating: 3/5
Kira-kira, the 2005 Newbery Medal Winner, is the story of Katie, a Japanese-American girl growing up in Georgia in the 1960’s. Told in first person, the narrator primarily focuses on her evolving relationship with her older sister. The two are initially best friends, with Lynn, the older one, taking care of Katie while their parents work. When their younger brother Sammy is born, Katie plays that role for him. The three go on some memorable adventures, including a picnic which turns bad after Sammy gets his foot caught in a trap left on public property.
However, as Lynn moves into high school, she makes a new best friend and develops interests which Katie doesn’t share. Katie resents Lynn’s new friend and often feels left out. Lynn also gets sick. Because her parents are working constantly, Katie serves as primary caregiver for Lynn as an initial diagnosis of anemia becomes one of cancer. Katie struggles with frustration and burn-out from undertaking this task and beats herself up when Lynn finally passes away while Katie is taking a break outside on the lawn. Several months later, Katie is given Lynn’s journal and realizes that Lynn knew she was going to die and had accepted it.
The secondary stories/issues are quite interesting. Katie’s parents work as a chicken sexer and a chicken processor respectively. The author includes tidbits about those jobs as well as a brief sub-plot about the formation of a union at the mother’s plant. There are also references to the unequal division of wealth, racism against the Japanese-American families, and other social issues. The overall description of the milieu in which Katie is growing up is richly drawn.
This isn’t a bad book, just one that failed to grab me. It’s a relatively rare first-person narrative that catches my interest, and this narrator didn’t. She came across as somewhat whiny, though I don’t deny she often had good reasons. The main conflict – Lynn’s cancer – also develops relatively late in the book, leaving the first part to stand as a sibling relationship/rivalry story with less focus. Because it focused so heavily on the sibling relationships, Katie herself sometimes fell to the side. Kira-kira probably reads much better to the target 6-8th grade audience. I went through a Lurlene McDaniel phase (an author whose books deal with death, disease, tragedy, etc.) at about that age. Although I haven’t reread those books in a while, this is likely a more nuanced approach to the same challenging issues.
Recommended for kids who enjoy a moderate level of angst as well as first-person narration. It might especially resonate with those children who have lost siblings or close friends as it is a GREAT depictions of shifting emotions around that. I don’t particularly recommend this for adults, though your mileage may vary.