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17 February 2005

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata is this year's Newbery Medal book. The Medal was awarded a month ago, but I am only just getting to review it because Kira-Kira was a true sleeper. Unheralded in early speculation, the novel was not on bookstore shelves, and took weeks to get into circulation. (Unlike many book awards, the Newbery has no advance shortlist.)

It's in a bookstore near you now. I saw it in the DFW airport store earlier today, which is a true sign of high-profile publishing success: shelf space alongside Leadership Secrets of Torquemada and Let's Face It, In Your Wildest Dreams He Is Never Going to Be Even the Slightest Bit Into You.

Kira-Kira is firmly in the ranks of those children's books that Barbara Feinberg has recently critiqued as "problem novels." "In these books," Feinberg explains,

children’s imagination is regarded as something that must be tamed, monitored, barred. The child protagonist, while presented with the darkest and most upsetting situations imaginable, is denied what in real childhood would exist in abundance: recourse to fantasy.

Boy, do the characters in Kira-Kira have problems. Narrator Katie is a Japanese-American child in the 1950s. Her parents, working-class, poor, proud, anti-union, move the family from Iowa to Georgia so that the father can take a job sexing chicks in a poultry plant. The family lives on ramen noodles and SPAM, and Katie's sister Lynn develops lymphoma. Their younger brother Sammy gets his leg caught in a trap set by the Simon-Legreeish chicken magnate Mr Lyndon.

Lynn eventually expires, but not without leaving behind a final diary entry: "To Katie I leave my diary, my dictionary, and my encyclopedia, which she had better use" (242). That's right, even as the poor child is perishing of cancer, she has the foresight to make a pitch to the American Library Association about the importance of reference books.

Aside from the ever-popular dying child, Kira-Kira deals with racial prejudice. There seem to be no blacks in this part of Georgia in the late 1950s, and civil rights is not even on the horizon, but Katie's family encounters generalized prejudice from their white neighbors. Except for the ogre Mr Lyndon, all the white characters we actually meet are simpatico, giving the novel the curious texture shared by some Civil War fiction: a South which is vaguely evil at the forest level but full of very good trees.

And as Feinberg suggests, the kids in Kira-Kira have little recourse to levity. Young Katie learns about union-busting, chicken sexing, and the depression generated by terminal illness. Her march toward doom would make Paul Laurence Dunbar's Sport of the Gods look light and playful. Kira-Kira is kind of like Sister Carrie without Theodore Dreiser's famous wacky comic relief.

Good things? The Newbery Medal does not go to incompetent books, and Kadohata's prose is spare and controlled, her psychological situations plausible, her settings and minor characters (like Katie's impulsive uncle) are offbeat and intriguing. But oy vey ist mir, is this a downer of a book.

Kadohata, Cynthia. Kira-Kira. NY: Atheneum, 2004.