I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character, and those that have something to teach us about the geography, history and people of the particular state. Right now we are finishing up Georgia.
I didn’t feel like Kira-Kira was a great book for getting to know Georgia, but it was a pretty good book. True to what you’d expect from a Newberry winner, there were some great life lessons to be learned from it–the importance of taking responsibility for your actions, even if you aren’t forced to and even if there are negative consequences to doing so; that being angry with someone doesn’t mean you don’t still love them–and getting angry at someone who is sick or dying doesn’t make you a bad person; the connection between working hard–in school or at a job–and success.
However, I felt that Kira-Kira was lacking somewhat in the wonderful cultural details that Bento Box had–particularly the food. Katie and Lynn’s parents had, at one time, run a Japanese grocery store–presumably like the ones that are described in-depth several times in Bento Box–but there is little to no description of the products they sold, the store, or even Japanese food made at home. There are a few other cultural elements, though, including the title of the book:
Kira-kira means “glittering”in Japanese. Lynn told me that when I was a baby, she used to take me onto our empty road at night, where we would lie on our backs and look at the stars while she said over and over, “Katie, say ‘kira-kira, kira-kira.'” I loved that word! When I grew older, I used kira-kira to describe everything I liked: the beautiful blue sky, puppies, kittens, butterflies, colored Kleenex. My mother said we were misusing the word; you could not call Kleenex kira-kira. She was dismayed over how un-Japanese we were and vowed to send us to Japan one day. I didn’t care where she sent me, so long as Lynn came along.
Or this passage, relating Native Americans to the Ainu of Japan.
Japan had people like Indians too. They were called the Ainu. My uncle had told Lynn and me about the Ainu. They were the first people ever to live in northern Japan. The Ainu called themselves the Sky People because they said their ancestors came from the sky, just like my ancestors came from Tokyo. The Ainu females used to tattoo mustaches on their faces. Lynn and I thought that sounded pretty. After our uncle told us about the Ainu, we painted mustaches on our faces every day for two weeks. Our father took pictures. Our mother got so upset, she had to lie down.
As in Bento Box, the family experiences casual racism, such as when they are relegated to a room in the very back of the hotel during their move to Georgia by a hotel clerk who first calls them Indians, then Mexicans, making it clear she doesn’t care what they are except different or “foreign.” And although Katie’s uncle has been studying to become a land surveyor, he continues to work at the poultry hatchery because, “nobody in Georgia is going to hire a Japanese man to be a land surveyor.” These experiences are filtered through a child’s eyes, softening them somewhat, but also somehow exposing them more truly for what they are.
“Have you noticed that sometimes people won’t say hello to Mom when we’re out shopping?” “Uh-huh.” “Well, some of the kids at school may not say hello to you, either.” “You mean because they don’t know me?” “No, I mean because they don’t want to know you.” “Why wouldn’t they want to know me?” … “Because, there’s only thirty-one Japanese people in the whole town, and there’s more than four thousand people in the town, and four thousand divided by thirty-one is … a lot more of them than of us.”
Another theme throughout the book is the family’s strong work ethic. Katie says, “We were poor, but in the way Japanese are poor, meaning we never borrowed money from anyone, period.” This strikes me as a common thread in many other novels of the South–poor people whose pride prevents them from asking for help. Instead, both parents work extremely long hours, often sleeping at their respective factories. They want to pay cash for a house, but finally obtain a mortgage when they realize that Lynn might die before they have the cash in hand. And they are reluctant to make waves by joining the union or being seen talking to “union thugs.” However, when Lynn becomes ill and eventually dies, they begin to recognize the benefits that a union could have provided for their family–namely, some compassion regarding their work schedule during that difficult time.
In Bento Box in the Heartland, we learned about the chicken sexers who were originally trained in Japan and were often Japanese immigrants. That knowledge is expanded a bit in Kira-Kira, as both parents work in Georgia’s chicken industry, which, in the 1950s when the novel is set, was already one of the most extensive in the country, and still is (though it sounds like there may be more opportunity for upward mobility within the industry now than in the past). In Kira-Kira, the father works as a sexer at the hatchery, where the best workers can separate one thousand to twelve hundred chicks in an hour, with 98-100% accuracy, while they are still wet from hatching.
As soon as the chicks were born, the sexers hurried to separate the males from the females. The sexers worked for twelve hours in a row, and then they slept while a new batch of eggs warmed. They would wake up a few hours later, when the new batch was born. The sexers got paid half a penny for each chick. Most of them had gone to school in Chicago or Japan to get this job. Chicken sexing was invented in Japan. Then a Japanese man came to Chicago and started a school to teach Japanese Americans how to sex chickens.
The mother works at a poultry processing plant, cutting legs and thighs off the dead chickens. Union representatives are trying to organize the workers at her plant so that they can demand basic human rights like bathroom breaks–instead of wearing diapers–and paid leave for family emergencies, such as the death of a child. The working conditions are presented in a matter-of-fact way from a child’s point of view–discussions of how the working conditions affected Katie and her siblings more than the parents who were actually experiencing them.
There were a few Southern or Georgia touches–notably on the family’s move from Iowa to Georgia.
From the car Georgia didn’t seem so different from anyplace else. But when we got out of the car and talked to people, we couldn’t understand them because of their Southern accents. They talked like their mouths were full of rubber bands! People stared at us when we went into restaurants. The restaurant signs said things like COLORED IN BACK. The white people sat at the front. We didn’t know where to sit, so we always ordered to-go. … Georgia had many claims to fame. During our driving Lynn read me all the signs: GORDON, CHICKEN CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; VIDALIA, HOME OF THE SWEETEST ONIONS IN THE WORLD; CORDELE, WATERMELON CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; MILTON, THE WORLD’S BEST PEACHES; and TEMPLETON, WHERE PEANUTS ARE KING. We also saw seven different restaurants that claimed to have the world’s best BBQ.
The girls learn about the meaning of “Antebellum,” and that “Okefenokee” means “Land of Trembling Earth” in Seminole. There are peaches and pecans, and something called the “gnat line.”
We lived below what Georgians called the gnat line, meaning that all the gnats in the world lived in town with us. My uncle claimed that more bugs lived per square mile in southern Georgia than anywhere in the state. Even in winter, there were bugs.
And then there’s the way the girls use Katie’s adopted Southern accent to make a little spending money:
By the time I was six and ready to start school, my accent had already become very Southern. I no longer called my sister “Lynn,” I called her “Lee-uhn.” I was kind of a celebrity in my neighborhood, the little Japanese girl who said “you all” instead of “you,” and “You don’t sah-ee” instead of “Really?” Sometimes people would pay me a few pennies to talk to them. My sister encouraged this enterprise, and soon we were rich.
But despite these details, I didn’t feel like we got to really know Georgia, perhaps because the narrative is from an outsider’s perspective–Katie is a child, and, despite her accent, she is Japanese, and will always be considered an outsider by the people in her Georgia town. The town is segregated and Katie’s family lives in the same apartment complex as all of the other Japanese people. She doesn’t have many friends and doesn’t spend much time with them outside of school. So Katie (and therefore we, as readers) doesn’t get to observe or take part in Southern customs or foods; she doesn’t learn about what makes these people tick, and neither do we. As a book for Young Readers, Kira-Kira has some wonderful lessons to teach, but getting inside the head of Southerners is not one of them.
We still have one more book for Georgia, then we will be moving on to Massachusetts.