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Kira-kira is a Japanese word that describes things that glitter. It is Katie Takeshima's first word taught to her by her older sister Lynn as they lie in the empty road outside their house looking at the stars. Lynn teaches Katie everything worth knowing. When their family moves from their Japanese community in Iowa to Georgia, Lynn is the one who must explain why some of the other children won't talk to them at school.

The setting is 1950s Georgia. Katie's parents are American-born Japanese, but that doesn't change attitudes toward the family. Her mom and dad work in a poultry processing plant, in conditions typical of factories in the mid-1950s. Factory workers wear thick pads beneath their uniforms because they aren't allowed to take breaks to use the bathroom. Workers suffer permanent injury from long hours of performing the same tasks. They aren't given time off for sickness or family emergencies. Attempts to organize a union lead to beatings and other repercussions.

When Katie asks her mother about unions, her mother responds, "A union is when all the workers get together and fight the very people who have provided them with a job … It's wrong to fight the people who are trying to help you." Katie's mother is afraid of losing one of the few jobs available to Japanese-Americans.

Through the family's struggle to raise money for a home, it is Lynn who is always providing the link between the old and the new and helping the family to understand the process of assimilation. But when she gets sick, the family begins to fall apart. It is up to Katie to take on the role of big sister and eldest daughter.

Cynthia Kadohata is clearly a gifted writer. Her prose sparkles with a specificity that makes KIRA-KIRA read more like a memoir than fiction. There are many things in the book that are true. The conditions in post-war factories are true; in some places they still exist. The struggles of an American-born Japanese family are true, and the limitations placed on the family are still experienced by many immigrant families in this country. And the relationships in this book are true, especially the bond between Katie and her sister Lynn.

Early in the book Lynn tells her sister, "The blue of the sky is one of the most special colors in the world, because the color is deep but see-through both at the same time." She adds that water and people's eyes have the same quality. Good fiction can also have this quality of depth and transparency; KIRA-KIRA certainly does.

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on February 10, 2004

by Cynthia Kadohata

  • Publication Date: February 10, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0689856393
  • ISBN-13: 9780689856396