53 pages 1 hour read

Cynthia Kadohata


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


Cynthia Kadohata’s first novel, Kira-Kira (2004), is a historical coming-of-age novel for middle-grade readers. The novel tells the story of the Japanese American Takeshima family, who live in the Chesterfield, Georgia, in the 1950s. The protagonist and first-person narrator is the younger daughter, Katie. The narrative spans seven years, involving the family’s move from Iowa to the South, where Katie’s parents become workers in the poultry industry. The narrative follows Katie as she awakens to the prejudicial feelings many white citizens harbor toward her family, to the abysmal conditions that workers like her parent experience in unregulated poultry plants, and to the realization that Lynn, the older sister she adores, suffers from a terminal illness.

Kadohata, a Japanese American Baby Boomer, has likened herself to Katie in interviews about the writing process, saying that her background led to the creation of the book. Kadohata has written more than 10 novels for young people. Kira-Kira received the 2005 Newbery Medal.

This guide uses the 2006 Atheneum Books paperback edition.

Content Warning: This novel references death and contains some profanity.

Plot Summary

Katie Takeshima has a loving relationship with her sister Lynn, who is four years older. While Katie is hard-headed and inclined to be naughty, she sees Lynn as brilliant and beautiful. When their parents’ Asian food store in rural Iowa fails, her father’s brother Uncle Katsuhisa helps the family relocate to rural Georgia, where they can obtain jobs in the poultry industry. The move is traumatic for the girls, who spend the drive constantly crying. Along the way to Georgia, they witness prejudice against people of color and experience it themselves.

Arriving in fictional Chesterfield, Georgia, the family reacquaints themselves with Uncle’s wife, Auntie Fumi, and twin sons David and Daniel, who are close to Katie’s age. Katie’s family moves into a very small two-bedroom apartment in a one-story complex. Several families living in and around the apartment are also Japanese American, providing a welcoming community that provides both emotional support and childcare as Mother and Father go to work. With Uncle’s help, Father obtains a job as a chick sexer at a hatchery. Female chicks become “broilers,” and workers quickly euthanize the male chicks.

Lynn loves school and becomes a favorite of her teachers, though she has no friends among the school’s white students. Katie cries so hard during her first days of kindergarten that her parents allow her to miss her entire first year of schooling. The next year, Lynn tries to prepare Katie to face the prejudice she knows Katie will face, but Katie’s experience of school is the opposite Lynn’s. She receives straight C’s and Katie daydreams in class, having romantic fantasies about her future husband and children. Katie’s dislike of school moderates to an extent with the birth of Sammy. Katie and Lynn rush home from school each day to care for Sammy. Like his father, Sammy is a particularly tranquil child.

Several years later, Lynn, now a young teen, is still the organizer of all the neighborhood’s children. When struck in the chest with a dodgeball, however, Lynn takes to bed, surprising Katie when she actually misses school the next day. Lynn receives a diagnosis of anemia, an illness that will wax and wane, gradually worsening over time.

Lynn and her new white friend, Amber, practice walking like fashion models, try on lipstick, and whisper together secretly. Their closeness causes Katie to feel excluded, though Lynn takes pains to include Katie whenever possible. Lynn and Amber persuade Uncle to take them, Katie, Sammy, and his family on a weekend camping trip to a site where they expect to see two boys from their class. Amber borrows Uncle’s bow and arrow and almost shoots Uncle in the head, which the two boys find marvelous. Lynn ends up kissing Gregg, the boy she especially likes.

During the summer, Katie and Sammy go to Mother’s factory jobsite while Lynn spends two weeks with Amber. Katie learns of the inhumane treatment workers experience at the rendering plant. They are not allowed to speak to one another outside the building so they cannot discuss unionizing the plant. Once at work, they are not allowed any interruption, even for a restroom break, until lunchtime. Katie and Sammy must remain in the car while their mother is inside the plant. Katie meets Silly, a girl her age whose mother is an office worker in the factory. Mother worries because Silly’s mother is a union organizer.

Returning home from the jobsite, Katie finds that Lynn became ill and had to return home early; though her health improves by Katie’s 11th birthday, the illness soon returns, and Lynn grows so weak her mother takes her to a hospital. When Mother calls from the hospital, Auntie Fumi is extremely distraught at what she hears, but she tells Katie that Lynn will be alright. Lynn returns home and her health seemingly improves. She confides in Katie that Amber has abandoned her. The next day, when Amber mocks Katie, Katie hits her in the head. Later, Katie reports to her parents that Amber has dumped Lynn, to which Mother and Father announce that they will buy their first home. The children present their parents with $100 they have saved from their allowance over the years as a contribution to a down payment.

The move into the house is a joyous event that enhances Lynn’s wellbeing. The three children have a picnic in a vast field belonging to Mr. Lyndon, the wealthy owner of the poultry plants. As Katie naps on a blanket, Sammy wanders onto a foot trap set by Lyndon to catch squirrels. Katie frees Sammy, but is too weak to carry him. Katie realizes she must leave injured Sammy and weary Lynn and run for help. She gets help from Hank Garvin, who drives across the field, picks up Sammy and Lynn, and takes them to the hospital.

As the new school year approaches, Lynn grows ill and cannot attend. She spends the next two months in the hospital. Because Mother regularly goes to the hospital, Katie and Sammy go with Father to the hatchery, where they see another workplace with stringent regulations and harsh treatment for employees. In protest against the dictum that employees must euthanize all male chicks, Katie steals two male chicks and sets them free in the field outside the factory.

Lynn returns home, still too weak to attend school. Katie attempts to meet Lynn’s every wish. Since Lynn wants pink nails, Katie steals pink polish from a store. When her father finds out, he chastises her mildly and tells Katie that her sister has lymphoma—a terminal illness. As Lynn grows weaker and tempers fray, Katie and Sammy go on a Thanksgiving weekend camping trip with Uncle; Katie feels rejuvenated and ready to care for her sister, still hoping Lynn will eventually recover.

A few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, Lynn gives Katie instructions about school and caring for their family. After dawn, Father awakens Katie. Lynn has died. The funeral must be the next day. Her parents ask Katie to be one of the speakers at the service. At the cemetery, loved ones drop a flower of their choosing into the grave.

As the family eats one night, Father notices that Sammy still walks with a limp. He tells Katie to show him where the trap was. Father drives to Lyndon’s house and smashes the boss’s windshield, but Katie manages to talk their way out of an arrest. She takes over the lion’s share of family responsibilities, including cleaning and cooking meals. On Lynn’s birthday, Katie and Silly go to the grave and perform a dance routine for her.

Father decides to take a family vacation. Katie encourages them to go to the Pacific Ocean, which Lynn always yearned to see.