This week I read Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata for the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge. It received the Newbery Medal in 2005.
The story focuses on the Takeshima family - a two-parent household with three children (Lynn, Katie, and Sammy), set in the 1960s in Iowa.
The parents own an Asian supermarket, but unfortunately it goes out of business. They move to Georgia and live in a small apartment, having to work in hatcheries to make ends meet.
Katie loves her older sister, Lynn, who sees even ordinary things in the world as kira-kira, a Japanese word for glittering. Born in the United States to Japanese parents, the girls face prejudices at school - especially in Georgia - and watch their parents endure hardships to make ends meet in a predominantly Caucasian culture.
When Lynn gets sick, Mr. and Mrs. Takeshima take their hard-earned money to purchase a home that Lynn always dreamed about when she was younger. Their hope is that Lynn will recover. Initially, the move seems to improve Lynn's health. However, Lynn experiences a relapse from distress when Sammy is caught in a metal animal trap owned by Mr. Lyndon, the owner of the hatchery.
As a preteen, Katie becomes the primary caregiver for her younger brother and dying sister while her parents work long hours at chicken processing plants.
While the parents are working long hours, often the children sit and/or sleep in the car in the parking lot. It is when she is waiting in the car for her mother that Katie meets and becomes friends with a girl named Silly Kilgore.
Silly's mother supports having a union at the hatchery, but Katie's mother does not. She simply wants to ensure that she has a job and doesn't appear disrespectful to those who are paying her wages. She is willing to endure less than ideal work conditions - including unreasonable long hours without breaks - just to have some money to pay for Lynn's growing medical bills.
After Lynn dies, the family searches through everything in the house for items that had a connection to Lynn. Mrs. Takeshima even sends Katie out to the garbage to go through it and find anything that Lynn touched.
These items are used to create a special altar in honor of Lynn. The family feels that Lynn's spirit will stay around as long as they have her belongings around, though Katie thinks that Lynn's spirit will only stay around 49 days after she dies from an old story her uncle told her.
Shortly after Lynn's death, a vote is taken regarding the union. Mrs. Takeshima votes in favor of the union so that a three-day grief leave for families handling adversities can be implemented. Although she knows it's too late for her family, it won't be too late for the next family suffering grief.
Lynn's ultimate death from lymphoma brings out a range of challenging 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.
This book, though written for middle school youth, has subjects that have been part of my life for some time now - caregiving; high costs of medical bills and how it can negatively impact one's family; and processing grief and loss issues.
As a historical fiction book, I enjoyed it. It made me aware of the many challenges that Japanese Americans had back in the 1960s - the decade when I was born. I also was not aware of the difficult situations in factories and hatcheries during that decade; and how poorly people were treated.
Some of these issues - fair treatment for workers and prejudice - still, unfortunately, exist today. Hopefully in my lifetime this will change.