Reading guide for Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

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by Cynthia Kadohata

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  • First Published:
    Feb 2004, 256 pages
    Jan 2007, 272 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About the Book
Katie Takeshima is about to enter kindergarten in the 1950s, when her parents close their Oriental foods grocery store in Iowa and move to Chesterfield, Georgia to work in a chicken hatchery. Uncle Kutsuhisa helps them move into a small apartment complex where other Japanese families live, and they begin a long struggle toward saving money to purchase a house of their own. The working conditions are almost intolerable at the hatchery, and the Takeshima children experience prejudices at school, but the small community of Japanese families band together and support one another in their daily lives. Because Mr. and Mrs. Takeshima work double shifts, Katie and her younger brother, Sammy, are left in the care of their older sister Lynn. Katie believes that Lynn is a "genius" and listens as her sister encourages her to look beyond tomorrow. But there is no tomorrow for Lynn. When she is fourteen, and Katie ten, Lynn becomes ill with lymphoma and ultimately dies. At this point, the Takeshima family almost falls apart, but Katie remembers Lynn's special way of looking at life, and finds a way to show her parents that there is always hope and something glittering - kira-kira in their future.

Pre-reading activity
means "glittering" in Japanese. Ask students to write a one page description of something that is kira-kira to them. Examples may include the ocean, stars, the moon, the morning dew on the grass, a dancer under a spotlight, etc. Invite them to share their writing in class.

Discussion questions

  1. Mrs. Takeshima is troubled at how "un-Japanese" her daughters seem, and vows to one day send them back to Japan. Debate how difficult it was in the early 1950s to belong to one culture and live in another. Why is Mrs. Takeshima so fearful that her daughters will lose their sense of heritage? Discuss customs that the Takeshima family practices that demonstrates the family's loyalty to their native culture.

  2. Katie describes her mother as "a delicate, rare and beautiful flower." Find examples in the novel that support Katie's description of her mother.

  3. Discuss Katie and Lynn's relationship. Why does Katie feel that her parents like Lynn best? It is Lynn who tells Katie that they are moving to Georgia, and it is Lynn who tells her that their mother is pregnant. Why do Mr. and Mrs. Takeshima leave such important discussions up to Lynn? At what point do Lynn and Katie switch roles?

  4. Describe the friendship that develops between Lynn and Amber. What does Katie mean when she says "Amber broke ranks and became Lynn's first best friend?" Why does Amber drop Lynn as a friend? Discuss why Katie is so hurt that Amber doesn't come to Lynn's funeral. Contrast Katie and Silly's friendship with Lynn and Amber's.

  5. What is Uncle Katsuhisa's role in the family? Katsu means triumph in Japanese. How does Uncle Katsuhisa live up to his name? Katie finds it difficult to see that her father and uncle are brothers. Contrast their personalities. What does Mrs. Takeshima mean when she says that Uncle Katsuhisa "didn't look before he leapt"?

  6. Hitting, stealing, and lying are the three worst crimes to Mr. and Mrs. Takeshima. How does Katie commit each of these crimes in the course of the novel? Discuss the scene where Katie steals pink nail polish for Lynn. How does she justify this crime to herself? Discuss why Katie's crime makes her mother feel that the family is falling apart.

  7. Lynn wakes up crying one night and says that in her dream she is swimming in the ocean. How does this dream foreshadow her death? Discuss the symbolism of the brown moth in Lynn's bedroom on the night she dies.

  8. Describe the sense of community among the Japanese families in Chesterfield, Georgia. Mr. Kanagawa is considered the leader of the community. How is his leadership revealed in the novel? How does Lynn become the leader of the children in the community?

  9. Prejudice is an underlying theme in the novel. The first time that Katie experiences prejudice is at the motel in Tennessee when her family is moving to Georgia. Why does Mr. Takeshima quietly give in to the motel clerk and take the room in the back? How does Lynn help Katie understand the prejudices that she will experience at school? Discuss why the Japanese mothers cut and curl their daughters' hair when they begin school. Debate whether they really believe that changing the girls' appearance will make them fit in, and suffer less acts of prejudice.

  10. Discuss the meaning of the word "exploit." How does Mr. Lyndon exploit the workers at the hatchery? Some of the workers are trying to unionize so that they can demand better working conditions. Mrs. Takeshima stays away from them because she feels that it is wrong to fight the people who are trying to help you. Why does she feel that Mr. Lyndon is trying to help them? Why do Mr. and Mrs. Takeshima decide to attend the pro-union meeting at the end of the novel?

  11. Discuss how the trip to California helps Katie come to terms with Lynn's death. How does she help her parents deal with their grief?

  12. What are the elements of hope in the novel?

Research & Activities

  • Mrs. Takeshima feels that her girls must return to Japan to learn about their femininity. Research the role of women in Japan today. Write a brief article that might appear in a book called Women in Other Cultures.

  • Brenda Swamp, named for a ten-year-old girl who died there, is near Chesterfield and is the subject of a local ghost story. Write and illustrate a story titled "Brenda" that Katie might one day read to Sammy.

  • Katie has to answer three questions about a story her class reads. Apply the same questions to Kira-Kira and write the answers in three paragraphs.

    What is the author trying to say in the scene where Mr. Takeshima confesses to Mr. Lyndon that he bashed his car?

    What is the theme of the story?

    How does the main character change at the end of the novel?

  • Katie notices that her parents work all the time and never take time to relax and have fun. Research the ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony (known as chanoyu or chado). Plan a tea ceremony that Katie might have for her parents.

  • Katie gives one of the eulogies at Lynn's funeral but sits down before she tells a special memory of Lynn. Write about a special memory of Lynn that Katie might have included in the eulogy.

  • Silly Kilgore's mother holds a pro-union meeting at her house at the end of the summer. Have the class plan this meeting. Instruct the speakers to point out the poor working conditions, long hours, safety issues, and low pay. Such meetings are only for the workers, but suggest that one student give a speech from Katie Takeshima's point of view.

  • Lynn always wanted to go to the ocean in California. Write a haiku titled "Kira-Kira" that Katie might write and dedicate to Lynn after her family returns from the west coast.

  • It is a Japanese custom to purchase souvenirs (or omiyage) from places they have traveled. Write a description of a souvenir that Katie might bring from California to put at Lynn's grave.

This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

Prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library Services, SC Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, Greenville.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Aladdin. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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