Kadohata, Cynthia 1956–
(Full name Cynthia Lynn Kadohata) American novelist and young adult novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Kadohata's career through 2006.
Before embarking on her career as a young adult author, Kadohata, winner of the 2005 Newbery Award for her debut children's novel Kira-Kira (2004), was best known for her adult-themed short stories and novels which related the coming-of-age experiences of women with Japanese-American heritage. Specializing in tales of Asian-American girls struggling with their burgeoning maturity, Kadohata's books showcase a personal sensibility, often utilizing events from her own life and family history. While her stories typically feature desperate conditions and emotional plots, Kadohata lends her fiction a tenderness and humor which enables readers to endure the difficult conditions her protagonists must face. Since releasing Kira-Kira, Kadohata has published two additional young adult works, Weedflower (2006) and Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam (2007).
Kadohata was born on July 2, 1956, in Chicago, Illinois, to a working-class Japanese-American family. Moments from her parents' lives as well as from her own childhood make regular appearances in her fiction. Her father is a Nisei, a Japanese American born to Japanese immigrants, whereas her mother's background is more clouded, her maternal grandfather having been an orphan. Thus, Kadohata is a Sansei, or third generation Japanese American, an experience that colors all of her novels. Her childhood was peripatetic as her family moved often—between Georgia, Arkansas, Michigan, and California—in search of work. This wandering existence is strongly reflected in her first novel The Floating World (1989). After high school, Kadohata worked in a department store and in a restaurant before enrolling in Los Angeles
City College. From there, she transferred to the University of Southern California where she earned a degree in journalism in 1977. After an automobile jumped the curb and severely injured her arm, Kadohata moved to Boston where she concentrated on her writing career. In 1986, after twenty-five rejections, The New Yorker published one of her short stories. Her work has also appeared in other literary journals, such as Grand Street and The Pennsylvania Review. After a brief tenure in the graduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, Kadohata transferred to Columbia University's writing program. However, when The Floating World received warm critical reviews, she abandoned the program. In 1991 Kadohata received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and won the prestigious Whiting Writers' Award. Despite the success of The Floating World, Kadohata's next two novels, In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992) and The Glass Mountains (1995), were largely ignored by critics and readers. She started working as a secretary, though in 1996, she received a Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship to turn The Floating World into a screenplay. Eventually, Kadohata's former roommate from the University of Pittsburgh, Caitlyn Dlouhy, now an editor at Simon & Schuster's Atheneum Books for Young Readers, convinced Kadohata to try writing for a young adult audience. The resulting book, Kira-Kira, received enthusiastic reviews and became a bestseller, winning the Newbery Medal, the highest honor in American young adult publishing.
Although Kadohata's early novels were written for adult audiences, they focus heavily on juvenile and young adult characters. Her first novel, The Floating World, is narrated by twelve-year-old Olivia Ann, who recounts the story of her extended Japanese-American family, the Osakas, traveling throughout 1950s America from state to state, seeking both economic and emotional well being. The floating world of the title is the ever-changing, frequently unfriendly, physical and personal environment through which the Osakas pass, "the gas station attendants, restaurants, and jobs we depended on, the motel towns floating in the middle of fields and mountains." In the Heart of the Valley of Love is a science fiction work set in 2052 Los Angeles. The world depicted is one where law and order have largely broken down and where violent class conflicts exist between the haves—who live in "richtowns"—and the have-nots. Corruption, pollution, disease, and crime pervade society. Much of the novel centers around the coming-of-age of the protagonist, Francie, a street smart young woman of mixed Asian and American descent who, just as The Floating World's Olivia, clearly owes much to Kadohata's own life. Though the LA society represented is frightening and cruel, there is hope in Francie's life, especially in her love for Mark, a student she meets at community college.
In her award-winning children's literature debut, Kira-Kira, Kadohata tells the story of the Japanese-American Takeshima family during the 1950s, tracing their experiences as they move from their hometown in Iowa to rural Georgia, where there are only thirty Asian Americans in the entire town. The protagonist, Katie Takeshima, lives with her two siblings—her older sister Lynn and younger brother Sammy—and her parents, who work in the local, non-unionized poultry plant. The narrative is made up of Katie's recollections of her early life, particularly Lynn's influence on her worldview. It is Lynn who tells Katie about the word "Kira-Kira," which loosely means "glittering" in Japanese, an idea that translates to finding beauty and glory even in the most mundane of surroundings. This sense of wonder is tested when Lynn eventually develops terminal cancer. Kadohata's familial legacy with the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II forms the basis of Weedflower. Like Kadohata's father in real life, twelve-year-old Sumiko is taken from her family's farm in California and imprisoned in the Poston, Arizona internment camp for the duration of the war. Sumiko eventually learns to overcome the inherent negativity of her situation even as she learns of the abuses inflicted upon the true owners of the land she has been forced to live upon. After meeting Frank, a Native-American boy, she discovers that Frank's people are the rightful owners of the land where the Poston Camp has been built. Eventually, Frank is able to overcome his resentment towards the unwelcome presence of Sumiko's fellow detainees by helping Sumiko build a garden in the desolate internment camp, a symbolic gesture that is reflective of a larger theme, which Hazel Rochman identifies as "a stirring metaphor of the meaning of patriotism for those who are not free." In 2007 Kadohata published Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam, the story of a once-wounded German Shepherd who becomes a military dog, sniffing out booby traps during the Vietnam War. Kadohata divides the narrative between the first-person recollections of Cracker the dog, her first owner, Willie, and Cracker's military handler, Rick Hanski.
Kadohata's first publication, The Floating World, has received a warm critical reception, with the New York Times praising the volume's "beautiful, clean yet lyrical prose." However, the few reviews that her next two novels, In the Heart of the Valley of Love and The Glass Mountains, attracted have been lukewarm at best, which may speak to why Kadohata has seemingly abandoned adult fiction for children's literature. Nevertheless, Kira-Kira has found almost universal praise from critics, with Natalie Whetzel arguing that Kadohata "creates a masterpiece of specific moments entwined in emotions. This novel has the ability to inspire the reader to remember what it is to live with the heart of a child." Hazel Rochman has further applauded Kadohata's skillful prose inKira-Kira, noting that, "[t]he real story is in the small details, never self-consciously 'poetic' but tense with family drama. In her first novel for young people, Kadohata stays true to the child's viewpoint in plain, beautiful prose that can barely contain the passionate feelings." While Weedflower has not received the same critical attention as Kira-Kira, it has still attracted largely favorable reviews. Marilyn Taniguchi has suggested that, "Kadohata brings into play some complex issues [in Weedflower] … [that] realistically dovetail with Sumiko's growth from child to young woman. She is a sympathetic heroine, surrounded by well-crafted, fascinating people. The concise yet lyrical prose conveys her story in a compelling narrative that will resonate with a wide audience." Jennifer M. Brabander has offered a more mixed assessment, asserting that, while Weedflower "is mostly, though not consistently, compelling, with numerous details of camp life seamlessly woven into the story … The low-key tone and subdued dramatic arc fit the story, in which camp life is mainly an uneventful struggle against boredom."
Young Adult Works
Kira-Kira (young adult novel) 2004
Weedflower (young adult novel) 2006
Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam (young adult novel) 2007
The Floating World (novel) 1989
In the Heart of the Valley of Love (novel) 1992
The Glass Mountains (novel) 1995
Cynthia Kadohata and Susan Faust (interview date May 2005)
SOURCE: Kadohata, Cynthia, and Susan Faust. "The Comeback Kid." School Library Journal 51, no. 5 (May 2005): 38-40.
[In the following interview, Kadohata discusses her writing career and the inspirations for her young adult novel Kira-Kira in the wake of her 2005 Newbery Medal.]
It was four in the morning on the West Coast, and Cynthia Kadohata's phone was ringing. This had better not be bad news or a crank caller. Kadohata's boyfriend grabbed the receiver, listened to the excited librarian on the line from Boston, and passed the phone to her. The next moment, Kadohata was leaping up and down: her first children's book, Kira-Kira (S & S, 2004), had just won the Newbery Medal, the nation's most prestigious award for young people's literature.
Since Kadohata began writing fiction in 1981, her career has had more ups and downs than the Grand Tetons. Her short stories appeared in The New Yorker. The New York Times praised the "beautiful, clean yet lyrical prose" of her first novel, The Floating World (Viking, 1989). And two years later, she won a Whiting Writers' Award, a $30,000 grant given to a writer of exceptional promise.
Then, suddenly, her career hit the skids. Kadohata's second novel, In the Heart of the Valley of Love (Viking, 1992), met with mixed reviews. Her third, The Glass Mountains (White Wolf, 1995), was virtually snubbed. By the late-'90s, the one-time wunderkind was all but forgotten, working as a secretary at a food-processing plant and struggling to write screenplays. An old friend suggested she write for kids. Kadohata resisted, but her friend—Caitlyn Dlouhy, now an editor at Simon & Schuster's Atheneum Books for Young Readers—persisted. Giving in to Dlouhy's suggestion turned out to be the best career move Kadohata ever made.
Kira-Kira ("glittering" in Japanese) tells the tender story of a Japanese-American family that moves from Iowa to rural Georgia in the 1950s. The quiet novel radiates hope as its narrator, young Katie Takeshima, recounts her parents' struggles to earn a living and her older sister's battle with lymphoma. Like Katie, Kadohata was born in the Midwest to Japanese-American parents. She grew up in small-town Arkansas and Georgia, where her father, like Katie's, worked long hours in a chicken-processing plant. Kadohata spent her teen years in Los Angeles and studied journalism at the University of Southern California and creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. Now 48, she and her 20-month-old son, Sammy (whom she adopted from Kazakhstan), live in Long Beach, CA, where we caught up with her.***
What was your reaction when you found out that Kira-Kira had won?
It was just complete, pure, uncomplicated joy. I kept screaming. I'm in my pajamas and robe, and I'm jumping up and down. Sammy didn't know what was going on. Caitlyn called shortly after I hung up, and then we both screamed.
I heard she convinced you to write for kids by sending you a box of children's books. Why were you so resistant?
I didn't really think that I could do it. It seemed like a whole other world. And then when I read the books, I realized that it's exactly the same process whether you're writing for kids or grown-ups. I thought, "Hey, I should try this."
How did you meet Caitlyn?
We were grad-school roommates at the University of Pittsburgh. Caitlyn and I would play backgammon and Trivial Pursuit. We became really good friends over Doritos. Her career blossomed, and just a few years ago, when she sent me all those books, she asked me to run some ideas by her. So I e-mailed her some ideas, and she didn't like them. [She laughs.] I remember feeling really annoyed and thinking, "Well, this was her idea." Then finally she liked the idea of a Japanese-American girl living in Georgia. I wrote her a proposal, and she told me, "You know, that's not really the way a proposal is written." [She laughs again.] I kept rewriting the proposal and finally she said, "Never mind. I'm just going to show this to [my boss]."
Describe how you work together
Of course, when I finish something, I think, "This is great." And I send it to her. Then she will send me this really long letter that starts, "Oh, you're so wonderful. You're so wonderful." And the next seven pages will say all the things that she wants me to change. Sometimes, when it's a really difficult letter, she sends me chocolates. It's really not that exciting to get chocolates from her.
How did the idea for Kira-Kira originate?
Maybe with my father, because he worked really hard and many, many long hours. Then came the voice of the girl, Katie. When I'm writing a first-person novel, that "I"—that word alone—feels like it does something in my brain; it makes it seem like it's really me.
What events in the story are based on your own life?
The feeling of intensity in the family was very real. There are also a few details that are true. Everybody in the hospital did come to see my brother when he was born, because they had never seen a Japanese baby before. And I had a very heavy Southern accent when I was a little girl. I used to be a really huge taco eater. There's one point in the story when the sister dies, and Katie eats five tacos. That was definitely something I would have done as a child.
Do you have an older sister?
I do, and she is still alive. She took care of us a lot, even though she is only a year and a half older than me. She had a maternal quality about her even then. So I always looked up to her. When I told her what the book was about, she got mad at me. I guess she thought that I was "secretly hostile toward her." Then, after she read it, she was happy.
What was it like to be Japanese American in the South during the 1950s and '60s?
We fit in by not fitting into it, by being part of a very small community. When we went to a party, it was almost always with a group of other Japanese or Japanese Americans who worked as chicken sexers, separating male and female chicks in the hatchery. I remember a little girl asking me something like, "Are you black or white?" I really stumbled for an answer. I said, "I don't know."
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
When I was 17, I wrote the most idiotic story in the world. It was about all these ducks that had only one leg. They lived on another planet and were a metaphor for humans. I actually sent that story to The Atlantic Monthly and, of course, immediately got a rejection. I don't think I wrote anything again until I was in college, when I wrote for the school newspaper.
When did you get serious about writing fiction?
In 1981 or 1982, I started sending short stories to both The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. I wrote 20 to 40 stories, and I got rejections for all of them. But I got letters back that were encouraging, so I kept writing. I remember in 1986, right before I sold my first story to The New Yorker, I told a friend that I didn't think I was ever going to sell a story; I wondered if I should stop writing. About three weeks later, I got a phone call from an editor at The New Yorker.
Were you surprised when The Floating World got such great reviews?
I didn't realize how fortunate I was. I just had this sense that your book comes out, and everybody gives you some nice reviews. I didn't know that much about publishing.
Were you discouraged when your next two novels were greeted less enthusiastically?
The first review of my second novel, In the Heart of the Valley of Love, was extremely positive. It was in the LA Times Book Review. I was getting married in Las Vegas when a terrible review came out in the New York Times. The reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, was extremely negative. When she gives you a bad review, she really gives you a bad review. Caitlyn was one of my bridesmaids. She or another friend said, "We were trying to keep that from you, because we didn't want to ruin your day." It was really sad.
I am not sure if my next novel, The Glass Mountains, got any reviews. It was just there and gone. Having no reviews is actually worse than having bad reviews, because you have all these expectations that are just not met.
What kept you going?
Some time in the late '90s, I got a Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship. It wasn't a lot of money; I think it was about $20,000. I was married, and so it kept me going. And I worked as a secretary.
Was screenwriting a good fit?
No. Part of the reason was that I totally abandoned myself as a writer. I thought, "Oh, I am going to try to write an action script." It is not as if I could write an action novel or would even think of trying. But I thought, "Screenplay: I have to write an action movie." Part of what happened was that I abandoned what I think of as my home as a writer. Something about the screenplay—well, I'm sure that the great screenplay writers write from the inside out—made me feel like I was doing it from the outside in.
What turned things around?
I got divorced in 2000. I did some writing then. Actually part of that is the novel Weedflower that Caitlyn bought last year or the year before. But, basically, in terms of making it all sort of click, it probably wouldn't have happened without Caitlyn. That's what's so amazing, that we were ever roommates. For years, she had been wanting me to write a novel for her.
How did you come up with the title Kira-Kira?
Actually, the first title was "I Wish." Then I played around with another Japanese word, pika-pika. It basically means "glittering," as well, but a slightly different kind of glittering. It sounds sharper, and so at some point, I thought it just wasn't the right word. I didn't know the word kira-kira. Someone who was born in Japan ran a bunch of words by me, and that was one of them. Some people said that either pika-pika or kira-kira would do fine. Then I heard about a commercial in Japan about a toilet-bowl cleaner that goes pika-pika. The toilet gets so clean that it's shining. That was the beginning of the end for pika-pika.
What do you think of when you hear the word kira-kira?
Stars. Fireflies. I think the title itself stands for hope in the end. It's definitely the right word.
Cynthia Kadohata (essay date July-August 2005)
SOURCE: Kadohata, Cynthia. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 4 (July-August 2005): 409-17.
[In the following transcript of her 2005 Newbery Medal acceptance speech, Kadohata discusses the history of Kira-Kira and how she ultimately became a children's writer.]
I was looking recently at my increasingly messy night table, and I noticed a white strip sticking to the wood. I scraped at it and realized it was a piece of soft, foamy tape that I had been wrapping on my broken glasses. But because I didn't want to appear on the Today show with tape on my glasses, I'd finally gotten them fixed in a mall in the frenzied hours after the call from the Newbery committee. I ended up wearing my contact lenses on the show, but I still would like to thank the committee for the fact that I can now unembarrassedly go out in public with my glasses.
Reading some speeches by previous Newbery winners, I noticed that Christopher Paul Curtis mentioned he was the first Newbery winner to wear dreadlocks. That got me thinking about what might be my own first, or what might distinguish me from the others. The answer came quickly. I believe I hold the distinction of receiving the earliest Newbery phone call ever.
My son, Sammy, was seventeen months old in January, and he doesn't always sleep well. On the Sunday night before The Call, I went to bed as exhausted as ever. It wasn't a situation where I thought I might be receiving a phone call soon. On the other hand, like just about everybody else in children's books, I knew who Susan Faust was. When the phone rang at 4:26 a.m., I thought it might be a friend who lives in Japan. Her son had just started school in America, and she had been calling a lot with concerns over his big move.
When I heard the words, "This is Susan Faust," I don't know if you would say I screamed exactly; it was really more of a screech such as you might hear from a seagull. When Susan said I was the winner of the Newbery, the seagull seemed to become completely hysterical. It flapped its wings and jumped up and down. Susan talked, I screamed some more, and we hung up.
I believe she told me not to tell anyone about the Newbery yet, since the public announcement hadn't been made. I'm ashamed to admit that I quickly called my brother and sister. My brother sleepily said, "Is it an emergency?" I said, "It's a good one." He said, "Did you win the lottery?" I said, "It's better."
After that a number of people called to talk to the seagull. They told me I was flying to New York that day to be on the Today show the next morning.
As I talked on the phone I kept noticing how the floor needed vacuuming, just as it had the day before. I thought, Everything's exactly the same, yet everything's totally different.
My boyfriend, George, came with Sammy and me to New York. We missed our first flight and ended up settling into our New York hotel room at two in the morning. Sammy and George seemed to be snoring within minutes. I remember feeling annoyed at how noisy they were. I had set the alarm for seven so I could shower before the car picked me up the next morning.
Every so often that night I would glance at the clock and think things like, If I fall asleep by three, I can get four hours of sleep. What if I'm only imagining all this? It would be so embarrassing if I only thought I'd won the Newbery and I really hadn't. But if I were imagining all this, I wouldn't be in New York. But what if I'm not really in New York? Wait a second. Obviously, I'm in New York … If I fall asleep by three-thirty, I can get three-and-a-half hours of sleep. The last time I remember seeing the clock, it was 3:40.
When I arrived at the studio the next morning, Kevin Henkes was sitting on a couch. I sat next to him. Two weeks earlier I had been on the phone with the royalty department at Simon & Schuster, begging them to overnight a check to me, and now I was sitting next to the Kevin Henkes. Was the world going completely insane? I seem to remember several people shaking my hand and saying, "I've read Kevin's book, but I haven't read yours."
Later that day I walked back and forth several times from various goings-on to my hotel room. The temperature in New York was thirteen degrees, and I was dressed California warm and wearing shoes with heels. By the end of the day, I was loaded down with a bouquet of white roses, a battery-operated Teletubby, and a bag full of Simon & Schuster books for Sammy. My shoes were growing tighter every second. George was wearing only a windbreaker. Sammy was completely covered up in a pile of coats, scarves, and blankets. The only way you knew he was in the stroller was by the wailing emanating from beneath the blankets. We must have looked pretty pathetic, because several people asked whether we needed help. And, this being New York, some people just shouted out their advice: "Get that baby inside!"
At the hotel, Sammy didn't care much about the Newbery. He wanted to be fed. He wanted to play in his bath. He needed to work off some energy walking up and down the hotel hallway. That night he and George again seemed to be snoring within minutes. And again I lay in bed awake, with thoughts nearly exactly the same as I'd had the night before.
The next evening we were back in Los Angeles. During the car ride home from the airport I felt a sort of quiet elation, maybe the first time since Monday that I felt quiet inside myself. The freeway was calming, like water rushing around me. Just as I was starting to feel satisfied, and maybe even self-satisfied, regurgitated orange airplane food appeared all over my clothes. Sammy looked up at me with a puzzled expression and orange lips.
I looked at George. He too seemed puzzled. He said, "Monday was supposed to be a perfectly normal workday."
I had never seen George as stressed as he'd been the previous three days. Let me explain something about George. He has the body type, the courage, and the heart of a bear. He is a police officer. People have shot at him. He once crawled into a fiery building to save a woman. He has chased killers through the streets. He once said to me wistfully, "Nobody has tried to kill me in a long time." But this was different. This was the Newbery. The astonishing thing about the Newbery is that it spans your life: you first read a Newbery book as a child, and you're still reading Newbery books when you retire. So the very word Newbery encompasses the world you live in today, and the world you left behind.
People have asked me, Where did you get the idea for your novel? I have basically been answering, "From the world I left behind."
My first real-life home was Chicago, where I was born in 1956. My family moved to Georgia for a while, then to Arkansas for seven years. As in Kira-Kira, I really did talk with a heavy southern accent. My sister's name was Kim, which I pronounced "Keeuhm," and I never said, for instance, "You should see that cloud," but rather, "Y'all should see that cloud." And the entire staff at the hospital really did come to look at my brother because they had never seen a Japanese baby before.
My father says we were raised rather freely in Arkansas. We didn't wear diapers when we played in the back yard, just did our thing whenever and wherever we felt the need. When my mother told my father to make us soft-boiled eggs, he fed us raw ones instead because, he says, "you didn't seem to care one way or the other." My nickname was Nee, and I liked dogs, playing chess, reading, and complaining. Today I like dogs, reading, and complaining.
When I think of my father in Arkansas, I think, My father worked. When I think of my mother, I think, My mother read. When my mother began taking us to the library, she discovered a love of reading at the same time we did. Someone once said to me, "The problems between your parents began when your mother started reading." My mother quoted Kierkegaard and the Bible with equal fervor to my sister and me. She made us read Scientific American articles we scarcely understood. I remember one article about peer pressure, and another about monkeys who became warped because they didn't have love. One of my favorite childhood memories is of when my mother became obsessed with the stars. She made charts of the constellations and lay with us in the back yard at night to look at the clear skies of our small Arkansas town. One of the family activities I remember most vividly is burning our garbage together in the incinerator in back at night, the ashes sparkling through the air as the fire warmed our faces. All of that is part of my real-life home, as well as my home as a writer. Out of our homes, I believe, grow our stories.
My father worked as a chicken sexer, separating the male from the female chicks at hatcheries. Some weeks he worked one hundred hours, and some days the only time we saw him was when he was asleep. I remember peeking into my parents' bedroom at 2 p.m. and giggling as he snored.
An Army veteran, my father had learned chicken-sexing under the GI bill after the war. Because of the brutal hours in his profession, he took amphetamines to stay awake and tranquilizers to go to sleep. But he made enough money to buy us a house. Later, when my parents divorced, he said he lay in his tiny apartment with sheets on his windows and believed that his life was over.
When I say Kira-Kira grew from "the world I left behind," I'm usually referring to those years in the South. But in writing this speech, I realized another impetus from a world left behind. One day, near the start of what I expected to be my senior year in high school, I walked off my Hollywood, California, high school campus and didn't return. Something I haven't mentioned in interviews is that I was a high school dropout. And I believe the way I felt when I dropped out was a little the way Katie Takeshima felt when her sister got sick, like she didn't know what to do or where to go. My English teacher, Mrs. Stanley, had given me an A. But mostly my grades were bad; my attendance was worse; and I had just been told by the administration that I was being kept back a year. Mrs. Stanley was one of those people you meet every so often in life who seem to have been sent from a divine source to guide you. But Mrs. Stanley retired, and I didn't return to high school.
My mother worked as a secretary by day and attended law school by night. When I told her I'd dropped out, she told me I had to either go back to school or get a job. Thus began my brief careers as a sales clerk and a hamburger waitress. I was a bad sales clerk, but I like to think I was a splendid waitress, with just the right balance of good manners and sassiness.
After I'd dropped out, I sought out the library near my home. Seeking it out was more of an instinct, really, not a conscious thought. I didn't think to myself, I need to start reading again. I felt it. I rediscovered reading—the way I'd read as a child, when there was constantly a book I was just finishing or just beginning or in the middle of. I rediscovered myself.
At eighteen I began attending a two-year college. I decided to major in journalism because I thought it was more "practical" than English. To quote Joan Didion, "Was anyone ever so young?"
Many of the students in the journalism program were older. Most were like me: people with a lot of confusion, and a little hope.
After finishing the program, I transferred to a university. The students were different: younger, with a little confusion, and a lot of hope. One summer during school I worked as a sales clerk at Sears. I proudly told the other sales clerks that I wanted to be a writer. They laughed loudly, and one said, "What are you going to write about, working at Sears?" And I confess I thought they had a good point. What would I write about? Other people suggested I "write a bestseller."
A couple of years after I got my degree in journalism, I moved to Boston to be near my older sister. But before I left Los Angeles I decided to take a bus trip through parts of America. I think I felt I needed to conjure up some spirits. Whenever I wrote anything for college, I would listen to music or smell perfume from long ago, anything to conjure up the writing spirits.
So I bought a month-long Greyhound pass and started with a ride to Oregon, which I'd never visited.
I remember walking on the beach talking to a former Coast Guardsman who had recently returned from being stationed in Alaska. As we strolled on the sand, he told me that his best moment ever was saving the life of a five-year-old boy. He gave me a green glass fishing float that he said he had found on a beach in Alaska. He believed the float had traveled across the Pacific Ocean. I still have that float. I like to think it once belonged to a fisherman in Russia or Japan. I met an old woman on the bus who said she had left Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years to pick fruit in California. She said she was sick and in her eighties, and this was the last trip she would ever take. She told me she'd known a lot of people who'd died over the years. I told her I'd never known anyone who'd died, and she was so surprised she threw her head back and it hit the window. I told her she'd lived a fascinating life, and she said I wouldn't think so if I'd been there. She emanated kindness. We hugged when she got off at Amarillo, Texas, and she said something like, "I hope you have a nice life." That was nearly a quarter of a century ago. In fact, I can imagine myself saying something similar today to a young girl on a bus, trying to understand who she is, and why, and where she should go.
Later that night on the bus, I opened my eyes and saw smokestacks amid an explosion of greenish fluorescent lights. It was a factory, and it was an astonishing sight rising from the barren flatlands. From somewhere in back a man called out, "This is America!"
What those words conjured up in my heart was a sense of what it meant to me to be an American in general, and in particular, an American writer. It did not mean shared history or even shared values with other Americans, but a shared landscape. What all of us shared were the factories, the deserts, the cities, the wheat fields. That sharing was an immense responsibility we had to one another.
I understood then that I could write about my section of that shared landscape.
One of your first realizations when you win a Newbery is that you don't win it alone. Many things have to happen over the decades in order to reach the magical moment. Twenty years ago I was going to grad school and living in the attic of a big house on Pittsburgh's south side. I already had one roommate, and my second roommate arrived one late-summer day. Her name was Caitlyn Dlouhy, and she later became my editor at Atheneum Books for Young Readers. Caitlyn alleges that I didn't come down to say hello that first day, and also that the first time she saw me I was wearing a glamorous silk robe—and my glasses were held together with tape.
Caitlyn is one of my closest friends and one of the most beautiful, happy people I have ever known. I wrote this novel because of her prodding. She has changed my life equally with her editing and with her happiness.
I want to thank the Newbery committee for the incredible honor and the incredible miracle of this award. Not long after they called me I was standing next to a swimming pool watching one pink and one yellow rubber duck float around in the water. Sammy was playing beside me. I watched him for a minute, and when I looked up again I couldn't see the pink duck anywhere. I felt a moment of panic and maybe even despair. I thought, My God, I'm in an alternate universe now. There is no pink rubber duck in this universe, and I haven't won the Newbery. Being transported to an alternate universe seemed no more or less amazing than winning the Newbery.
I want to thank George, who has sustained me fervently and whose belief in me has often been greater than my belief in myself. I'd also like to thank everyone at Simon & Schuster, who published a book for no other reason than that they believed in it. In particular, thanks to Susan Burke, Caitlyn's assistant and future editor extraordinaire; Michelle Fadlalla, Jennifer Zatorski, and the entire talented marketing and publicity teams; the magnificent Russell Gordon; Jeannie Ng; Rick Richter; and the incomparable Ginee Seo.
Although my son is still too young to understand this, I'd like to say a few words for him on this night that is so important to me. When I was in Kazakhstan adopting him, another single woman and I told each other that the international adoption process was the hardest thing we'd ever done. Do you know why we said that? Because we hadn't become mothers yet.
My plane ride home from Kazakhstan was scheduled for something like 4:20 a.m. I didn't sleep at all that night. Right before I passed through the airport's gates, I turned to say goodbye to the adoption agency's driver. Before I could say anything, he shouted out the last two sentences I would ever hear from him. The first sentence was, "Once you pass through those gates we cannot help you anymore." He pointed to a door beyond the gates. The second sentence was, "If they take you into that room to shake you down do not give them more than twenty dollars!" I believe I had about $1,800 in cash on me, since nearly all transactions in Kazakhstan, including paying apartment rent and adoption-related fees, were conducted in cash. I passed through the gates, staring fearfully at that door. But the guard smiled at me, and, after more than seven weeks in Kazakhstan, I was on my way home.
I had a two-hour wait in the airport, a seven-hour ride to Germany, a four-hour layover in Germany, and a twelve-hour flight to Los Angeles. Sammy cried inconsolably nearly the whole way. On the first flight, I tearfully approached a man I thought I'd heard speaking English and said, "Are you an American? Can you help me?" He was. He did. On the second flight, a man told me that because of Sammy's crying the entire airplane was talking about me. A beautiful and generous family from Finland watched Sammy while I slept.
There were many moments after our return when I told myself, I cannot do this. I am not a mother and I cannot be a mother. I have three more novels scheduled to be published by Atheneum. In one, I quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu. For my son, I'd like to quote from Chuang Tzu now:
Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. But one may be the other. This is called the transformation of things.
At some point, without even realizing it, I became a mother who only dreamed she was not. This is called the transformation of things.
I also need to thank my family. When either second or third grade—I forget which—was coming to an end, I had fallen in love with the reader we used in school. I told my parents that I would not return the book. I loved it too much. I cried. I ranted. I raged. I wanted that book. Finally my parents decided that my mother, who'd taken typing in high school and owned an old manual typewriter she practiced on, should type up the book before we returned it. I still remember the Xs all over her typing errors. A few years later I got a Christmas gift from my family. It was a notepad with the Lucy character from Peanuts. A frown furrowed Lucy's brow. The caption read, "No one understands us crabby people." That gift proves that somebody did understand me. So I really need to thank my family for their understanding, and I hope that I've returned it.
I also have to thank my dog Shika, who lies by my side every moment that I write.
I've moved many times in my life. Whenever I move to a new place, I call the phone company and the gas company. I don't like to drive so I figure out the transportation system. And I figure out where the nearest library is.
I read voraciously until I finished eighth grade. Then I hardly read at all for three years. I look back on 1973, the year I dropped out of school, with the belief that libraries can not just change your life but save it. Not the same way a Coast Guardsman or a police officer might save a life, not all at once. It happens more slowly, but just as surely.
I started out tonight by discussing what distinguished me from other Newbery winners. I believe what we all have in common with one another and with everybody in this room is that we search out libraries like heat-seeking missiles. And another thing we have in common: our parents could not have afforded to buy us all the books we read as children. Our parents walked across the doorway of that first library holding our hands because they knew our futures resided in that building, as I believe the futures of my son and indeed of all Americans reside in those buildings.
Libraries fed our passion as children, and feed it still.
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Caitlyn M. Dlouhy (essay date July-August 2005)
SOURCE: Dlouhy, Caitlyn M. "Cynthia Kadohata." Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 4 (July-August 2005): 419-26.
[In the following essay, Dlouhy—Kadohata's long-time friend and editor—discusses the publishing history of Kira-Kira and how she eventually convinced Kadohata to write children's literature.]
She was the mysterious woman in the black silk robe who lived in the attic. The door leading to the attic was always closed, and once every so often, I'd hear pacing. Somewhat more often, I'd hear the low hum of an electric typewriter. But it was the silence that was startling. I'd been there for two days, and had so far only caught a single glimpse of my housemate late at night, running down the stairs in a black silk robe.
We were in the same graduate writing program. On the third day, as I struggled to finish a short story to bring to my first writing workshop, the mysterious upstairs roommate chose to come downstairs at the Exact Same Time that I did. She was in the black silk robe. She wore glasses held together by a knot of tape. She sort of nodded at me, then glided off toward the kitchen. That was how I met Cynthia Kadohata.
I didn't see her again until that first workshop—led by Lewis "Buddy" Nordan. That first class consisted primarily of our being told that we would read stories from our fellow classmates each week and critique them the following week. We had to be ruthless, ruthless, but not opinionated. Basically, we couldn't say, "I think this story stinks." We had to say, "This story stinks because …" Buddy then gave us a brief summary on each of the three short stories he was passing out for next week's class. The third one, he told us, was titled "Snow" and was about a racetrack. I grimaced. I had not even a remote interest in reading about racetracks. My mind jumped ahead to next week, on how I would position my critique. "This story stinks because it's about a subject that is completely uninteresting to me."
Things grew worse. When the trio of manuscripts reached me, I saw that the one on top, "Snow," was written by Cynthia Kadohata, my mysterious attic roommate. Wonderful. Just wonderful. I was going to hate it and I'd have to completely avoid her until class (which didn't actually seem that difficult since I'd only seen her once in five days, anyway).
It was an assignment, so I of course had to read it. But I only needed to read the first paragraph to know—it was stunning. This was written by a girl who was in a graduate writing program, just like me. But not like me. Not like me at all. I wanted to be a writer. This attic roommate was a writer.
There are a few times in your life when you meet someone whose skill helps you recognize your own range. When you meet these people, there's no envy—because you can't envy the gifted. You either are, or you're not. Cynthia Kadohata, I knew after reading that short story, was gifted. Gifted with a clear, brave, pure voice, with a way of looking at the world that brought a freshness to her every sentence, and with an ease to her prose that seemed effortless. But I knew it wasn't effortless. Over the months, I grew to learn that the seemingly endless quiet up in the attic was the quiet that comes with intense focus.
I can't quite remember when we actually became friends, but the obvious connection, writing, wasn't what did it. Still, suddenly we were playing weekly backgammon and Trivial Pursuit tournaments and consuming horrifying amounts of Tostitos with sour cream. She taught me how to use chopsticks. I showed her the shortcut to the grocery store. We argued over which was the ideal breed of dog (she loves a good argument). I learned she could work herself into terrific furies. I found out she laughed a lot and danced wildly in her attic, but barefoot, with the music very low. She wrote her first short story when she was a deeply philosophical nine-year-old, contemplating the dejection that quickly follows opening presents at Christmas. And she sent her stories out—to the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, the Paris Review. No one else in the program yet dared, but Cynthia did. She was that sure of herself. Or that hopeful.
Tobias Wolff tried to lure her to the Syracuse writing program; Columbia successfully lured her to New York with a scholarship. I finished my thesis in Pittsburgh. We wrote each other, called each other, usually very late at night. We'd talk about anything but writing. And then, in one phone call, she just happened to mention that the New Yorker was publishing one of her stories. I'd expected her to be screaming with delight. Instead, I screamed for her. Cynthia, uncomfortable with the praise, deflected my enthusiasm.
Years went by; there were more short stories in more exemplary magazines. I'd congratulate her; she'd hem and haw and change the conversation. Cynthia moved a lot when she was a child; her parents swung from Chicago to Georgia to Arkansas to Michigan, from apartment to house to motel to house to motel, searching for better work and a better life for Cynthia and her older sister and younger brother. And it seemed that Cynthia herself couldn't relinquish that peripatetic lifestyle. She moved again and again, and when she wasn't moving, she was traveling through the badlands and prairies of America on a Greyhound bus, just to see. To search for connections that would inspire her writing, connections that might make her think of a home she never really had. So sometimes there'd be gaps when I'd have no idea where she was, what she was doing. Then one day she called to say she'd written a novel. Would I look at it? She just wanted to know if I liked it or not, even though it had already been bought by Viking. I read it, thought it was gorgeous, and told her so. She thanked me, and then about a year later sent me a first edition of her debut adult novel, The Floating World.
Another year went by. Cynthia was living in Los Angeles at this point. I should have been living in New York, but in my first month there, interviewing for an entry-level publishing job, I'd broken my ankle so badly I had to go back to Massachusetts so my parents could take care of me. About three days after the surgery Cynthia called and asked if I'd read something else for her. This time she didn't want to know if I liked it or not—well, she did want to know that—but she also wanted to know where the story wasn't working. It was another novel for Viking. Would I write up some notes?
I was flabbergasted. She wanted me to write up some notes? I felt so honored.
I began working on the manuscript the day it arrived. I wrote copious notes on about the first twenty pages before I allowed myself a break. The next day, I picked up the manuscript again and realized I couldn't remember a word I'd read. I looked at my notes, and they made not one bit of sense. I'd learned a very valuable lesson—you can't edit while on Percocet.
Determined to do right by the trust Cynthia had placed in me, I took no painkillers the next day. A week later, I had my dad mail off what I thought was a brilliant editorial letter to Cynthia.
And I heard nothing. Cynthia called, sure, to see how the old ankle was doing. But she said nothing about the letter. She'd call again, to say she was sending me a book she was sure I'd love, and still say nothing about the letter. I decided that somehow it never got to her, and she was too polite (Cynthia is exceedingly polite) to mention it, not wanting to seem as though she were pressuring me to hurry up and get my notes to her. So I decided to check. "Yep, got your letter," she said, then immediately changed the subject. I tried not to panic. But I knew. She was furious. We continued checking in with each other for another six months, never once mentioning The Letter. Every time I'd put down the phone, I'd think, Phew. She didn't explode this time. But. It was coming.
And it did. And, as with most things with Cynthia, not in the way I'd expected. One day I picked up the phone to hear her already in mid-rant. Cynthia will often begin a conversation halfway in—by which I mean she's so intent on getting right to the point that she sometimes forgets the formalities of hello/how are you/it's me Cynthia, and instead launches full steam into whatever she needs to talk about. She was furious. She'd just reread my notes on her novel, six months after receiving them. Six months after slamming them into a drawer after deciding I couldn't possibly have been more off-base in my assessment of her work. But today, she'd been feeling particularly masochistic and had decided to reread my letter. And she was furious because she realized she now agreed with almost everything I'd written.
And I realized I might just have a future in editing.
Fast-forward to Cynthia's wedding on the top of a volcano in Las Vegas. She'd asked me to be a bridesmaid. I was an assistant editor in a publishing company and couldn't possibly afford the plane ticket. But by now my parents had met Cynthia several times and had unofficially claimed her as a second daughter. A few days after I'd told them that Cynthia was getting married, an envelope arrived containing a check and note that said: Go to Cynthia's wedding. I went. The bride wore a sarong, a huge sunflower in her hair, and may have been barefoot. As I said, Cynthia never does anything quite as expected.
During this time, I'd had the supreme good fortune of working at Laura Geringer's imprint at HarperCollins. As I read through the never-ending piles of submissions, I kept thinking of Cynthia. Every one of Cynthia's novels, while published by adult divisions, actually featured an adolescent or teen protagonist. Her voice was so true. Her prose could be heartbreaking without ever slipping into sentimentality. She created characters you felt you'd known forever. As I rejected yet another poorly written manuscript, I came to a decision. Cynthia would have to write a book for children. She was born to do it. And I was going to pester her ceaselessly until she did.
And so I began. After days of mental rehearsals, I slipped my idea into a conversation. "Gee, I keep thinking about how much I loved Olivia in The Floating World, and she's only twelve. Have you ever thought—"
She was in the middle of a new novel.
I waited until she finished the novel and asked again.
She was taking a screenplay class. The Floating World had been optioned for film, and the director wanted her to try her hand at writing the screenplay.
I waited another year.
She was still working on the screenplay. Also, her brain was bloated from eating too much over the holidays.
I waited another year.
She was writing another screenplay. But yes, she'd love to speak at my wedding.
I moved to Atheneum. The move made me all the more determined.
But this time I took a different tack. I would lure her with a box of books. Books by Bruce Brooks and Elaine Konigsburg and Frances O'Roark Dowell, books by Katherine Paterson and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Hilary McKay. Books and books and books. I could barely haul that box to the mailroom. Oh, and I wrote a note. "Read these." I'd like to think I added something encouraging such as "You can be this good," but I'm afraid I probably didn't.
And then, once again, I waited. Finally, I received an e-mail from her: "How dark could a YA novel be?"
I nearly fell out of my chair. She was thinking about it. She was thinking about it! I practically cartwheeled into my then-publisher Ginee Seo's office. "Cynthia Kadohata is thinking about writing something for children!" I shouted. Ginee knew I'd wanted to work with her for years. She was as gleeful as I was, and said that if Cynthia could put a story idea into a proposal, we could give her a contract. I dashed off an e-mail to Cynthia. She responded immediately: "How do you write a proposal?"
After a few more days, another e-mail arrived, titled "Proposal, or something I think might be a proposal." It was not a proposal. It was a gorgeously written sixteen-page piece in the voice of a little girl, Katie, who was telling the reader about how her older sister Lynn would dangle her mother's rhinestone necklace in her face and repeat the words pika-pika (a word similar in meaning to kira-kira).
Cynthia is a novelist to the core of her being. She is absolutely incapable of summarizing a story. She could not write: "This is a book about two sisters; one eight and the other twelve." Instead, she had given me paragraphs, then pages. She had given me the opening chapter of Kira-Kira.
It took ten years of nudging, but at last she was going to write a children's book.
It's a tricky thing, editing a very good friend. When I'm editing her, I have to be her editor first, and I can't think about her feelings. I have to be honest about what doesn't work, and that can be upsetting. As I had learned, Cynthia could be, shall we say, touchy about criticism at first, even criticism with the very best intentions. So I sent out my first editorial letter on Kira-Kira with a certain amount of fear in my heart. I didn't know if I could take another six months of furious silence.
I won't ever know how many darts were thrown at my picture as she read my letter. I only know that with a single revision, Cynthia brought forth elements in Kira-Kira that I could never have known to ask for but that were simply perfect. For instance, I knew her much-beloved Doberman was failing while Cynthia was writing the book. She somehow transformed the personal heartbreak of watching her dog die into Katie's lonely agony over her sister, into that scene where Katie chases wildly, desperately, after the setting sun, climbing higher and higher, not wanting the last day her sister was alive to end. And I knew she knew very well, as Katie in Kira-Kira does, what it was like to feel "other." When Cynthia's family moved after seven years from Arkansas to Michigan, her drawl was so thick that the teacher recommended speech therapy so people could understand her. Her strongest memories of her father are of him working impossible hours so that his family could finally have a home of their own, much as she has Katie's parents work and sacrifice for their children in Kira-Kira.
Cynthia once said that every piece of writing strikes a balance between experience and imagination. This is certainly true for her. She mines personal experiences and weaves them with singular imagination, giving us worlds we'd never know otherwise. Imagine not knowing that we were once a country where an entire hospital would turn up to see a newborn Asian baby. Yet this very thing happened when Cynthia's brother was born, and a similar scene takes place when Katie's little brother is born in Kira-Kira. Imagine not knowing that we were once a country where women in some jobs were not allowed to take even a bathroom break while they were working. Her father's descriptions of the working conditions in the poultry plants in the 1950s brought this horrifying fact to Cynthia's attention. Cynthia in turn brings it to ours as we read about the pads the female poultry plant workers had to wear, as they were denied any breaks during the day. Yet once you've read about this in Cynthia's novel, you'll never forget. That's the power of words under the power of a gifted writer.
I find that gifted writers are usually gifted revisionists. Gifted revisionists are an editor's dream. Cynthia admits, now, to a bit of storming around the house, a little old-fashioned pouting, when she receives a revision letter. But I suspect such letters best serve to get her creative ire up. I'll show her! she probably thought just before moving the scene in which Katie's father smashes the car with a two-by-four to later in the novel so that it would have that much more emotional impact. She'll never duck an opportunity to make her work stronger. She is fearless in the face of hard work.
Cynthia writes when life is good, she writes when life is bad. She writes when life is terrifying. Last June she flew to Kazakhstan to bring home the baby boy she was adopting. She was going alone, as a single mother. She had $12,600 strapped to her waist—for the orphanage fees, for rent, for unexpected necessities. She was scared. She went anyway. The trip was supposed to last three weeks. Bureaucracy she struggled to understand in a language she didn't understand pushed three weeks to four, to five, to six, to seven. She hunkered down in a flat with a single light bulb and brown water spurting irregularly from the sink and bath pipes. And when she wasn't with the baby during the Baby House's visiting hours, she wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. By hand. She came home with her son, Sammy, and her next novel. A children's book.
She is a writer who has always wandered, searching for a place that feels like home—for herself, and for her writing. Since adopting Sammy, Cynthia hasn't moved once. I'd like to think she might stay where she is for a good while with her new family. And I'd like to think that maybe Cynthia has also found a home in children's books, in writing for children, within a community of artists who share her passion. When she finished Kira-Kira, I asked her if she would like to write more for children. Without a moment's hesitation, she shouted (yes, she shouted), "YES!" She'd never had something come so naturally. She loved it. So yes, the mysterious woman in the attic, the surreptitious dancer, might just be home. For that, and for her many gifts, including the great gift of her friendship, I will be forever grateful.
THE FLOATING WORLD (1989)
Antioch Review (review date winter 1990)
SOURCE: Review of The Floating World, by Cynthia Kadohata. Antioch Review 48, no. 1 (winter 1990): 125.
These chapters, though standing on their own, are strung together into a novel through the narrator's voice [in The Floating World ]. Most of these vignettes are told by Olivia Ann as a 12-year-old, some from later years. She and her three younger brothers are constantly being moved, for three reasons: "One was bad luck—the businesses my father worked for happened to go under, or the next job we headed to evaporated while we were in transit. Also, it could be hard even into the fifties and sixties for Japanese to get good jobs…. The third reason was that my parents were dissatisfied with their marriage, and, somehow, moving seemed to give vent to that dissatisfaction." Three of these chapters have appeared in the New Yorker and two in other magazines. This is Kadohata's first novel, an appealing document of what it was like growing up a Japanese-American in this country.
IN THE HEART OF THE VALLEY OF LOVE (1992)
Cherry W. Li (review date 15 June 1992)
SOURCE: Li, Cherry W. Review of In the Heart of the Valley of Love, by Cynthia Kadohata. Library Journal 117, no. 11 (15 June 1992): 102.
Best-selling author Kadohata here presents an even less stable world than she did in her first novel, The Floating World (Viking, 1989). Her protagonist [in In the Heart of the Valley of Love ], Francie, searches for love and meaning amid the breakdown of social and moral order in a 21st-century Los Angeles dominated by riots, smog, gun-toting young men, and an oppressive, authoritarian government. It is particularly disturbing to read this novel in the aftermath of the rioting that followed acquittal in the Rodney King case, for clearly all the elements of Kadohata's chillingly evoked Los Angeles are already in place. The evocation of place aside, the novel doesn't have much "heart" to it. The characters are sometimes flat, and the plot development is a little on the drab side. Still, this is recommended as an effective depiction of what the future might hold.
Deborah Stevenson (review date January 2004)
SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. Review of Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 5 (January 2004): 195.
[In Kira-Kira, ] Katie adores her older sister, Lynn, whose charisma and imagination make the world a magical place for her younger sister; when hard times force their family to move from their Iowa home to Georgia, where work is available in the chicken-processing factories, it's Lynn who holds things together for Katie in the face of their parents' long working hours and the prejudice against their Japanese-American family. Soon Lynn's health begins to flag, however, and while her parents do what they can (including buying a small house, so that the family can have the home that Lynn has longed for), Lynn is eventually diagnosed with lymphoma, which takes her life. Katie's narration is the uninflected stream-of-consciousness of a young child, and there are touches of adult retrospection wafting through the subtext, so it will achieve its best effects with more sophisticated readers who can fill in some of the contextual blanks. It is, however, a story compellingly and touchingly told, in a matter-of-fact yet fluid style that speaks eloquently to Katie's experience: "I wondered if anyone else in history had ever been as sad as I was at the moment. As soon as I wondered that, I knew the answer was yes. The answer was that millions of people had been that sad." The slice-of-life approach makes this a story of more than family loss, too, with the brutal existence of the factory workers a strong, if understated, theme: since no bathroom breaks are permitted, Katie's mother and the rest of the women must wear pads at their jobs; Katie's mother finally votes for the union in order to win the right to a bereavement day in the event of a child's death, a privilege she herself did not have. Readers drawn by confident prose and strong family stories will appreciate this quietly lyrical account of the growth of a young girl.
Publishers Weekly (review date 9 February 2004)
SOURCE: Review of Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. Publishers Weekly 251, no. 6 (9 February 2004): 81-2.
Set in the 1950s and '60s, Kadohata's moving first novel [Kira-Kira ] is narrated by a first-generation Japanese-American girl who moves with her family from Iowa to Georgia when their "Oriental foods grocery store" goes out of business. There, Katie and her family face hardships, including discrimination (she is ignored by the girls at school, for example), and the harsh conditions at the poultry plant where her mother works ("thugs" make sure workers do not gather so that they cannot organize). Katie's father often sleeps at the hatchery between shifts, and when their babysitter goes away, Katie and her brother must stay in the hot car outside the plant while their mother works. But it's her doting older sister Lynn's struggle with lymphoma that really tests her family. Katie's narrative begins almost as stream-of-consciousness, reflecting a younger child's way of seeing the world. But as she matures through the challenges her family faces, so does the prose. Kadohata movingly captures the family's sustaining love—Lynn and Katie secretly save their treat money for years so they can help their parents buy a house, and when ailing Lynn gets to pick the house, she chooses a sky blue one, because Katie as a "little girl, … had told her [she] wanted our first to be sky blue." The family's devotion to one another, and Lynn's ability to teach Katie to appreciate the "kira-kira," or glittering, in everyday life makes this novel shine. Ages 11-up.
Ashley Larsen (review date March 2004)
SOURCE: Larsen, Ashley. Review of Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. School Library Journal 50, no. 3 (March 2004): 214-16.
Gr. 6-8—Katie's first word is "kira-kira," the Japanese word for "glittering," and she uses it to describe everything she likes [in Kira-Kira ]. It was taught to her by her older sister, Lynn, whom Katie worships. Both girls have trouble adjusting when their parents move the family from Iowa to a small town in rural Georgia, where they are among only 31 Japanese-Americans. They seldom see their parents, who have grueling jobs in chicken-processing plants. Then Lynn becomes deathly ill, and Katie is often left to care for her, a difficult and emotionally devastating job. When her sister dies of lymphoma, Katie searches for ways to live up to her legacy and to fulfill the dreams she never had a chance to attain. Told from Katie's point of view and set in the 1950s, this beautifully written story tells of a girl struggling to find her own way in a family torn by illness and horrendous work conditions. Katie's parents can barely afford to pay their daughter's medical bills, yet they refuse to join the growing movement to unionize until after Lynn's death. All of the characters are believable and well developed, especially Katie, who acts as a careful observer of everything that happens in her family, even though there is a lot she doesn't understand. Especially heartbreaking are the weeks leading up to Lynn's death, when Katie is exhausted and frustrated by the demands of her sister's illness, yet willing to do anything to make her happy. Girls will relate to and empathize with the appealing protagonist.
Hazel Rochman (review date March 2004)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. Book Links 13, no. 4 (March 2004): 47.
Gr. 6-12—Katie Takeshima worships her older sister, Lynn, who knows everything and takes care of Katie while their parents are working long hours in their small Georgia town in the late 1950s [in Kira-Kira ]. It's Lynn who shows Katie the glittering beauty (kira-kira) of the stars and who prepares Katie for the prejudice she will encounter as one of the few Japanese American kids in their school. But when Katie is 10, Lynn, 14, falls ill, and everything changes. There's no surprise. It's clear that Lynn will die, and Katie goes through all the stages of grief. The real story is in the small details, never self-consciously "poetic" but tense with family drama. In her first novel for young people, Kadohata stays true to the child's viewpoint in plain, beautiful prose that can barely contain the passionate feelings.
Christian Century (review date 14 December 2004)
SOURCE: Review of Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. Christian Century 121, no. 25 (14 December 2004): 24.
Everything changes after buoyant Katie Takeshima and her family move from Iowa to rural Georgia during the 1950s [in Kira-Kira ]. Family solidarity becomes fragile as Katie's sister Lynn becomes seriously ill with lymphoma, her parents exhaust themselves working in a chicken factory rife with labor secrets, and Katie herself begins to experience the racism from which Lynn had shielded her. Extraordinary writing discloses a dimension of American life rarely related for readers of any age.
Natalie Whetzel (review date winter 2005)
SOURCE: Whetzel, Natalie. Review of Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. ALAN Review 32, no. 2 (winter 2005): 49.
To Katie, Lynn is … older sister … best friend … and greatest teacher. Lynn begins Katie's life lessons [in Kira-Kira ], teaching her her first word: kira-kira (Japanese for glittering; shining). Katie plasters the world with it. She gives the name to everything from kittens to colored Kleenex. Katie views life as kira-kira. She carries this outlook with her as her parents close their small oriental food store in Georgia and move the family from their supportive Japanese community to an unfamiliar Iowan town. There, her parents work almost 24 hours a day at a chicken hatchery, where they are being treated as animals themselves and making scarcely enough money to support their family.
Katie and Lynn, and a new baby brother, Sammy, view an adult's world through children's eyes. They learn the importance of family interdependence—one person hurting meant they all were hurting.
Cynthia Kadohata creates a masterpiece of specific moments entwined in emotions. This novel has the ability to inspire the reader to remember what it is to live with the heart of a child.
Laura Tillotson (review date January 2005)
SOURCE: Tillotson, Laura. Review of Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. Book Links 14, no. 3 (January 2005): 12-13.
Gr. 6-10—Eleven-year-old Katie is a Japanese American growing up in a small town in 1950s Georgia, where her parents work long hours in the local hatchery [in Kira-Kira ]. Kira-kira means "glittering" in Japanese, and Katie's older sister, Lynn, has always shown her how everyday things can be kira-kira, even Kleenex or a blade of grass. Katie's honest, funny voice distinguishes this poignant story of family love and loss, as Lynn becomes sick and is eventually diagnosed with lymphoma. As their parents work themselves to exhaustion to keep up with mounting medical bills, Katie and Lynn and their younger brother are increasingly left on their own, but despite the challenges of Lynn's decline, the family somehow manages to stay together. Katie's painful maturing after Lynn dies is beautifully handled and emotionally satisfying, and will resonate with readers who have experienced loss in their own lives.
Angela Pitamber (review date summer 2005)
SOURCE: Pitamber, Angela. Review of Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata. Childhood Education 81, no. 4 (summer 2005): 244.
Katie Takeshima and her sister Lynn are Japanese immigrants in a town that barely tolerates their existence [in Kira-Kira ]. As their parents save money for their dream house, Katie and Lynn learn how to make friends in an unwelcoming school environment. Their parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and their dreams are deferred by Lynn's debilitating illness. The safe and comfortable world that Katie has created for herself, sheltered by Lynn, is quickly disrupted as Katie must learn to be more understanding of her sister's illness, and take on more responsibilities in her family. No matter what happens, the lessons Lynn teaches through her appreciation of everything that is kira-kira (glittering) will never be forgotten. Ages 9-12.
Publishers Weekly (review date 27 February 2006)
SOURCE: Review of Weedflower, by Cynthia Kadohata. Publishers Weekly 253, no. 9 (27 February 2006): 62.
Set in America immediately before the attack on Pearl Harbor, this insightful novel [Weedflower ] by the Newbery-winning author of Kira-Kira traces the experiences of a Japanese-American girl and her family. Sixth-grader Sumiko, the only Asian student in her class, has always felt like an outcast. Early on, a heartbreaking scene foreshadows events to come, when Sumiko arrives at a classmate's birthday party and is told by the hostess to wait outside on the porch, and is then sent away. The girl's feelings of isolation turn to fear after the United States declares war on Japan. First, government officials take away Sumiko's uncle and grandfather. Then her aunt must sell their California flower farm; they are transported to a makeshift camp and later to a Native-American reservation in Poston, Ariz. Living like a prisoner in the desert, Sumiko nearly succumbs to what her grandfather termed "ultimate boredom" ("that mean close to lose mind," he explains). But Sumiko finds hope and a form of salvation as a beautiful garden she creates and a friendship with a Native American boy, Frank, both begin to blossom. The contrast between the Native Americans' plight and that of the interned may enlighten many readers ("They take our land and put you on it. They give you electricity," snaps Frank). Kadohata clearly and eloquently conveys her heroine's mixture of shame, anger and courage. Readers will be inspired by Sumiko's determination to survive and flourish in a harsh, unjust environment. Ages 11-up.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 March 2006)
SOURCE: Review of Weedflower, by Cynthia Kadohata. Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 6 (15 March 2006): 293.
Post-Pearl Harbor Japanese-American internment is seen from the eyes of a young girl who eventually manages to bloom after she is uprooted and planted in the Arizona desert [in Weedflower ]. Twelve-year-old Sumiko and her little brother Tak-Tak live with their aunt and uncle on a flower farm in California. The only Japanese student in her class, Sumiko longs for friends and acceptance. She loves the fields of "weedflowers" and dreams of owning her own flower shop. After Pearl Harbor, Sumiko and her family are removed from their land and transported to an internment camp on an Indian reservation in Poston, Ariz. Surrounded by fields of dust, Sumiko's "dream was gone and she didn't know what would take its place," until she teams up with her neighbor Mr. Moto to make the desert bloom and escape the "ultimate boredom" of the camp. And when Sumiko meets Frank, a Mohave boy who resents the Japanese on his land, she finds an unlikely, but true friend. Like weedflowers, hope survives in this quietly powerful story.
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 April 2006)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Weedflower, by Cynthia Kadohata. Booklist 102, no. 16 (15 April 2006): 59.
Gr. 5-8—In a quiet, stirring narrative, the author of the Newbery Medal Book Kira-Kira (2003) once again brings close a little-known part of American history through the eyes of a child [in Weedflower ]. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Sumiko, 12, is moved with her Japanese American extended family from their Southern California flower farm to a desert internment camp on an Indian reservation in Poston, Arizona. The disruption is itself traumatic, but there's also conflict with the Mohave residents. But even as she longs for home, she remembers the prejudice from whites, and as she makes a garden, overcomes the hostility of a Mohave boy, and finds some sense of community, she feels safer in the camp than outside. Kadohata has drawn on extensive interviews with camp survivors and news accounts of the time, but although the facts are as dramatic as the fiction, the research never swamps the story thanks to the beautifully individualized characters. "You're not the first to lose things," Frank tells Sumiko, and the barbed wire fences remain a stirring metaphor of the meaning of patriotism for those who are not free.
Marilyn Taniguchi (review date July 2006)
SOURCE: Taniguchi, Marilyn. Review of Weedflower, by Cynthia Kadohata. School Library Journal 52, no. 7 (July 2006): 102.
Gr. 5-8—When Pearl Harbor is attacked, the lives of a Japanese-American girl and her family are thrown into chaos [in Weedflower ]. Sumiko, 12, and her younger brother, Tak-Tak, live with their aunt and uncle, grandfather Jiichan, and adult cousins on a flower farm in Southern California. Though often busy with chores, Sumiko enjoys working with the blossoms, particularly stock, or weedflowers (fragrant plants grown in a field). In the difficult days that follow the bombing, the family members fear for their safety and destroy many of their belongings. Then Uncle and Jiichan are taken to a prison camp, and the others are eventually sent to an assembly center at a racetrack, where they live in a horse stable. When they're moved to the Arizona desert, Sumiko misses the routine of her old life and struggles with despair. New friends help; she grows a garden with her neighbor and develops a tender relationship with a Mohave boy. She learns from him that the camp is on land taken from the Mohave reservation and finds that the tribe's plight parallels that of the incarcerated Japanese Americans. Kadohata brings into play some complex issues, but they realistically dovetail with Sumiko's growth from child to young woman. She is a sympathetic heroine, surrounded by well-crafted, fascinating people. The concise yet lyrical prose conveys her story in a compelling narrative that will resonate with a wide audience.
Jennifer M. Brabander (review date July-August 2006)
SOURCE: Brabander, Jennifer M. Review of Weedflower, by Cynthia Kadohata. Horn Book Magazine 82, no. 4 (July-August 2006): 443-44.
Kadohata follows her Newbery-winning Kira-Kira with a novel [Weedflower ] about a Japanese-American girl, Sumiko, who is twelve in 1941. Though her parents died years before, Sumiko doesn't feel like an orphan; she loves her family's California flower farm, where she lives contentedly with her younger brother, aunt, uncle, cousins, and beloved grandfather. Life changes dramatically when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor; first Sumiko's grandfather and uncle are arrested, and then the rest of the family ends up in an internment camp in Poston, Arizona. The writing is mostly, though not consistently, compelling, with numerous details of camp life seamlessly woven into the story. Kadohata also adds some depth with a friendship between Sumiko and a Mohave boy (the camp is on tribal lands). The low-key tone and subdued dramatic arc fit the story, in which camp life is mainly an uneventful struggle against boredom; the novel also reveals why people such as Sumiko's family quietly accepted arrest and internment. Kadohata again creates a sympathetic, believable young protagonist and a vividly realized setting.
D'Aguiar, Fred. "The Diminutive Epic." Third World Quarterly 12, no. 1 (January 1990): 215-17.
Offers reviews of three contemporary novels by a selection of second-generation Japanese immigrants, including Kadohata.
Kadohata, Cynthia, and Mickey Pearlman. "Cynthia Kadohata." In Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews with Women Who Write, pp. 112-20. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.
Kadohata discusses her writing process, how being a Japanese-American woman writer affects her style, and readers and critics' perceptions of her work.
Kafka, Phillipa. "Cynthia Kadohata, The Floating World: 'I Like the Diabolical Quality, the Clarity of Admitting I Want.'" In (Un)Doing the Missionary Position: Gender Asymmetry in Contemporary Asian American Women's Writing, pp. 135-53. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Examines the familial relationships in Kadohata's The Floating World.
Park, You-Me, and Gayle Wald. "Native Daughters in the Promised Land: Gender, Race, and the Question of Separate Spheres." In No More Separate Spheres!, edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher, pp. 263-87. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.
Reviews the presentation of gender and race in works by African-American and Asian American women writers, including Kadohata's The Floating World.
Additional coverage of Kadohata's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Asian American Literature; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 71; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 140; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 124; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 59, 122; Literature Resource Center; and Something about the Author, Vol. 155.