Girl faces racism, sister's cancer in touching tale.
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What parents need to know

Educational value

This historical novel may open kids' eyes about what it was like to be non-white in the Deep South during the 1950s. Although Katie doesn't rail against racism, she points out the inequities her family must accept because they're Japanese, such as having to pay more money for a motel room in the back, not having friends at school, and her uncle's inability to get the job he wants. Katie doesn't like school, but because her sister, Lynn, longs for both of them to someday go to college, Katie assumes they both will.

Positive messages

Keep a positive attitude despite the hardships you must endure. Study diligently so you can go to college. You'll find happiness if you're good to your family and try hard to achieve your goals.

Positive role models

Inspired by her sister, Lynn, Katie has a powerful confidence that stays strong even when people are being mean or rude to her. Katie thinks of herself as a bad girl because she likes doing bad things, but modern readers will find her transgressions, such as having a messy room, mild. She doesn't like school and doesn't try to do well in her studies, but she's a loving, caring sister and daughter who'll do anything for her family. Lynn teaches her to be proud of who she is and is herself an excellent student, willing to work hard so she can someday go to college. Their parents are sometimes strict, but they are loving and kind.


Katie's brother gets his ankle caught in an animal trap that a rich man put in his field to prevent trespassing; the injury leaves him with an occasional limp..


Katie talks about her parents making babies but is unclear on what exactly this entails.


A motel worker says "Shhhheee-it," and Katie's dad whispers to Katie what it means (but what he says does not appear in the text). He also tells her the "B-word" stands for "bad lady."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Katie's uncle chews and spits tobacco.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Kira-Kira is a story about a poor Japanese-American family living in the South during the 1950s. Katie's sister becomes deathly ill with lymphoma, and it tears the family apart. The family encounters racism, although narrator Katie is matter-of-fact about it and only gradually realizes the limitations she'll face because of it. The only violence occurs when Katie's brother gets his ankle caught in an animal trap that a rich man put in his field to prevent trespassing. Katie's uncle chews and spits tobacco. There's one use of a drawled version of "s--t.")

What's the story?

When Katie is 5 years old, her family moves from Iowa to Georgia, where they become one of only 31 Japanese-Americans in town. Katie adores and admires her older sister, Lynn, who sees everything as kira-kira -- shining and glittering. Before Katie starts school, Lynn tells her that people may not want to talk to her because of her race, but Katie isn't really bothered by this. She's more interested in following her sister around and doing whatever she does, and, when her baby brother is born, taking care of him. Her parents both work in chicken-processing plants and are made to work inhumane hours -- for example, her mother has to wear a pad because she's not allowed to go to the bathroom -- but they withold support of a union out of fear of losing their jobs. Though Katie finds school boring, she finds joy elsewhere -- she loves camping with her uncle, looking at the stars with her sister, and playing with her little brother. When Lynn becomes very ill, she feels as if she's losing her whole family, as her parents must work extra long hours to pay medical bills, and Lynn no longer seems like Lynn. Ultimately, it falls to Katie to hold the family together.

Is it any good?


Historical fiction lovers will find an easy entry into KIRA-KIRA, as Katie's an immensely likeable narrator. She manages to remain optimistic about her future despite her family's struggles to stay afloat financially and, later, to get through her sister's illness. Her experiences as a Japanese-American girl living in the Deep South in the 1950s are fascinating and sometimes amusing (as when Katie talks about her Southern accent and her celebrity status as "the little Japanese girl who said 'you all' instead of 'you'") and touch on political and social issues without being heavy-handed. Readers not interested in history may find it rough going, however, since it sometimes seems as if nothing good ever happens to Katie, and the bad times accumulate, especially toward the end.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about historical fiction. What kinds of details show the story is taking place in a time different time from our own? What do you like about reading historical novels?

  • How have attitudes about race changed since the 1950s? What other books you've read or movies you've seen show kids dealing with racism?

  • Some nights Katie and Lynn stay up and tell each other their "selfish wishes" and then finish with an unselfish wish. What selfish wish would you make? How about an unselfish one?

Book details

Author:Cynthia Kadohata
Genre:Coming of Age
Topics:Brothers and sisters, Misfits and underdogs
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Simon & Schuster
Publication date:February 27, 2005
Number of pages:244
Available on:Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
Awards:ALA Best and Notable Books, Newbery Medal and Honors

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Kid, 12 years old November 13, 2010
Kid, 11 years old September 19, 2009

for teens and pre teens

I read the book and i absolutely loved it. i did a book report on it. It may have a few little bad things in it but im 11 and i loved it.
What other families should know
Great role models
Adult Written bydajmom January 9, 2010

Loved it

I'm surprised to see no warning about the language...there are some cuss words in this book - 4, to be exact. Anything Katie did that was negative (like shoplifting) she had to apologize for and make it right. I LOVED this book. I thought it moved quickly and completed it in a day. I could not put it down. I can see a mature 9 year old reading it and liking it, but it is going to take a certain level of maturity to "get" it. I thought the ending was simply perfect and it left me smiling and feeling warm inside.
What other families should know
Too much swearing


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