Before I dive into this review, I have a quick, fun note. A month ago I gushed about my favorite middle grade novel of 2016, The Girl Who Drank the Moon. A week and a half later the Newbery winner was announced. Guess what? I should have been on that panel! I finally broke my recent string of Newberies I haven’t really enjoyed. Congratulations to Kelly Barnhill and her absolutely fabulous novel.
On to this week’s post, which also happens to be identically decorated, though it’s a good thing I WASN’T on that panel…
This book won a Newbery Medal back in 2005 and I’m not sure why. My guess is because it’s “multicultural” and deals with a touchy-feely subject (death), two things the ALA seems to thrive on. The only reason I even finished reading is to say I did. (I don’t generally bother writing negative reviews, but in the case big award winners, I think posting my take is valid.)
So you’re saying to yourself, there must be some redeeming value if it won such a prestigious award. Yeah, I suppose there is. Some. It features a Japanese-American family in 1950s-60s Georgia. That was unique. Their hard life working long hours at unglamorous jobs was well-portrayed. I thought there’d be some way-too-overdone prejudice issues, but they were mildly applied. The story also had a touch of humor, enough to keep it human. Mostly they were just the protagonist’s quirky kid-thoughts, like when she wants to tip over her aunt’s beehive hairdo to see what’s inside. Or when she declares banks useless because she could just knock a robber over the head with a lamp. These brief glimpses into Katie’s mind were probably my favorite part. Neither was the book completely without artistry, but I’m really stretching here to find good things to say. I just didn’t connect with this story. At all.
Why not? Because the characters, all of them except Uncle, fall flat. I developed no sympathy for Katie. I never felt like I knew her parents. Her brother Sammy was an afterthought. And I found Lynn annoying. In fact, I was eagerly waiting for Lynn to die because the book was dragging on so.
Also, I spent nearly the whole time trying to figure out what point the author was trying to make. As I read, I kept track of several themes—rich vs. poor, white vs. minority, grief vs. happiness, overwork vs. contentment—but I was glad the take-away value was finally spelled out for me at the end, because I just wasn’t catching it. Here’s that moment: “I think that summer, when my father moved Lynnie’s bed…he’d realized that we had a choice: Either we could be an unhappy family forever, or not.” Oh. Happiness. Okay.
And in the title moment, in the last paragraphs of the book? Katie is remembering her sister, remembering how she used the term “kira-kira” (“glittery”) liberally. “My sister taught me to look at the world this way, as a place that glitters, as a place where the calls of the crickets and the crows and the wind are everyday occurrences that also happen to be magic.” Oh. I guess I didn’t feel that way about Lynn. I recalled her teaching Katie that Japanese term, but I didn’t think she demonstrated this magical, optimistic viewpoint in all the pages in between. I thought both instances of revelation felt very forced and under-supported, like the framework truly hadn’t been applied to the entire story.
In conclusion, I don’t get it. Why a Newbery? I have no idea.
Anybody read this book and love it? I’d be interested to hear from you.