Since publishing her first novel, The Floating World, in 1989, Cynthia Kadohata has been viewed as one of the most compelling novelists in the United States. At the same time, she has tended to be described as a Japanese American writer, a distinction the author feels is both flattering and misleading. In her work Kadohata does explore the complications that come with having a "hyphenated heritage," or two heritages, however she believes that her novels have a more universal appeal. One reason is that all of her books are coming-of-age stories that explore such common themes as feeling different and struggling to find an identity. Another reason that Kadohata's books are so appealing is that she draws from her own childhood experiences. In 2004 she mined those memories to pen Kira-Kira, her first novel aimed at a younger audience. For her efforts Kadohata was awarded the 2005 Newbery Award for excellence in children's writing. It was an amazing feat for a first-time children's author.
Cynthia Kadohata is a second-generation Japanese American. This means her parents, although of Japanese descent, were also born in the United States. Specifically, Kadohata was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1956 or 1957. Even though she hailed from Chicago, most of her childhood was spent on the road. The wandering Kadohatas moved from Illinois to Arkansas, where Cynthia's brother was born, then on to Georgia, Michigan, and back to Chicago, where her sister was born. When Kadohata was fifteen years old the family put down roots in Los Angeles, California—although by that time her parents had divorced and established separate households.
Such a nomadic upbringing had a lasting impact on Kadohata, who developed a strong urge to travel as an adult. In interviews she describes herself as the ultimate "road hog." And, ultimately, traveling the country and writing became permanently linked for her. As the author explains on her Web site, "I love to travel around this amazing country. The beautiful landscape, the highways—I love it. Traveling, seeing the country, is one of the things from which I derive my 'writing energy.'"
While Kadohata's parents were married her mother was a homemaker; after the divorce her mother took various clerical jobs and eventually earned a degree in sociology. Kadohata's father grew up working on tenant farms in southern California, helping to pick celery and attending very little school. After
"Just thinking about the American landscape and focusing on it puts me in touch with what I think of as the real, essential me. I have to be in touch with the real, essential me whenever I sit down to write."
a brief stint in the U.S. Army, he became a chicken "sexer" at a poultry plant, meaning he separated male and female chickens. "It was a horrible, backbreaking job," Kadohata recalled to Bob Minzesheimer of USA Today, "and for some reason, all the chicken sexers were Japanese, and all the Japanese Americans in town worked at the poultry plant." Being only one of a few families of Japanese descent in small southern towns gave the young girl an early sense of being an outsider, a feeling that as an adult Kadohata would explore in her writing.
Kadohata was an intense and dedicated student. An avid reader, she was especially drawn to any books that featured animals. Among her early favorites were Charlotte's Web by E. B. White (1899–1977) and White Fang by Jack London (1876–1919). Although she enjoyed reading, Kadohata had no interest in becoming a writer. Actually, her plan was to become an astronaut, which she claims never would have worked out because she gets severe motion sickness.
While in Chicago the studious youngster attended an alternative high school, but when the family moved to Los Angeles and Kadohata entered Hollywood High, many of her credits did not transfer. She eventually dropped out of school, partly because she felt she simply did not fit in. "I became intensely shy," Kadohata admitted to Lisa See Kendall of Publishers Weekly. "It got to the point that going to the grocery store and talking to the cashier really made me nervous." After leaving school the teen took a job as a clerk in a department store and then flipped hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant. When she was eighteen years old Kadohata was admitted to Los Angeles City College. She later transferred to the University of Southern California, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in journalism.
After graduation, twenty-one-year-old Kadohata had a life-changing experience when a car jumped a curb and barreled into her as she was walking down a street in Los Angeles. The accident left her with a broken collarbone and a severely damaged right arm. It also made Kadohata realize that anything could happen at any moment. She told Kendall, "Life is unpredictable."
During her recovery Kadohata went to live with her sister in Boston, Massachusetts. It was there, while wandering through the city's many bookstores that she rediscovered her love of reading, a hobby she had abandoned as she grew older. Kadohata devoured dozens of books of short stories, finally concluding, as she told Kendall, that "you could say things with fiction that you couldn't say any other way." While working at various temporary jobs Kadohata began writing her own stories and submitting them to national magazines, including the Atlantic and the New Yorker. The first story she submitted had an offbeat plot featuring a world that was inhabited by one-legged ducks.
Over the next four years the struggling writer submitted over forty stories to magazines and was rejected time and time again. Kadohata was persistent, however, and finally, in 1986, the New Yorker accepted a short story called "Charlie O." Several other stories were subsequently purchased by other magazines, including The Pennsylvania Review. All of the tales would eventually end up becoming chapters in Kadohata's first novel.
While submitting stories, Kadohata honed her writing skills by taking classes at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and New York's Columbia University. Her advanced education was cut short, however, when she was discovered in 1988 by literary super-agent Andrew Wylie. Wylie had read one of Kadohata's New Yorker stories and was so intrigued he wrote two letters asking to represent her. A stunned Kadohata agreed and soon after Wylie sold The Floating World to the publishing company Viking Press. Even after the book was released in 1989 the fledgling writer had a hard time believing she was truly a published author.
Although not specifically aimed at younger readers, the narrator of The Floating World is a twelve-year-old Japanese American girl named Olivia whose family, like Kadohata's own, live a transient existence crisscrossing the United States, in the years following World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). As Olivia grows to become a young adult she must do so in very close quarters and under the watchful eyes of her parents, because the family does everything together, including sometimes sleeping in the same room. Olivia must also contend with her grouchy grandmother, who is frequently physically and emotionally abusive. The family does eventually leave "the floating world" of gas stations, motels, and truck stops to settle permanently in Arkansas, where Olivia, finally in a stable home, has the freedom to grow up.
The Floating World was enthusiastically received by critics, who praised Kadohata for her vivid and stark writing style. In particular, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times commented on the author's ability to "handle painful moments with humor and sensitivity." He wrote that " The Floating World marks the debut of a luminous new voice in fiction." Within the Asian American community, however, reviews were mixed, with some claiming that Kadohata was not always historically accurate or that she was sometimes being socially irresponsible, especially in her depiction of Olivia's grandmother. Kadohata took such criticism in stride, claiming she was writing from her own experiences and that her characters could not be expected to represent all Japanese Americans. As she explained to Kendall, "I think all Asian American writers are just writing from their hearts. Why should their work or my work stand for all Asians? That's impossible."
For her next novel, In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992), Kadohata traveled much further ahead in time, setting her story in Los Angeles in 2052. In Kadohata's fictional world the city is in shambles with tension constantly erupting between two groups: the haves, who live in "richtowns," and the have-nots. Although it is a futuristic novel, it also tackles contemporary issues (at the time the book was published, L.A. was experiencing a series of race riots). At the center of the story is nineteen-year-old Francie, a girl of mixed Asian and African background. Creating the character was a very personal journey for Kadohata (Francie's arm is crushed during a car accident). The author revealed, "I thought this was a way for me to come out of the closet, in a sense. I have friends who have never even seen my arm."
Reviews of In the Heart were mixed, with some critics claiming Kadohata's second major effort lacked originality and imagination. Others applauded the author for her lyrical language and felt that Francie's story was poignantly realistic and that Kadohata remained a consistently powerful storyteller. Ten years later, in 1992, Kadohata released another novel, called The Glass Mountains, which was also in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It was published in print format, but it was initially offered as an e-book, meaning that for a fee a reader could download it from the Internet.
Because Kadohata consistently featured younger heroines in her novels, her editor at Viking Press suggested she attempt a children's book. The author read boxes of books that her editor sent her and then went to the library to research even more. The result was the widely acclaimed Kira-Kira, which Kadohata released in 2004. The story focuses on ten-year-old Katie Takeshima, a first-generation Japanese American whose family moves from Iowa to Georgia after their grocery store goes out of business. Once again Kadohata returns to memories of her childhood in describing life for a Japanese American in a small, southern town. Kadohata describes Katie's first taste of discrimination in such vivid and frank detail that it is easy to believe that she is writing from first-hand experience. The author also draws on her own father's past (Katie's father is forced to work grueling hours in the town's poultry plant).
The biggest problem Katie must face, however, is watching her older sister, Lynn, struggle with cancer. Because their parents work long hours the two girls are particularly close; in fact, Lynn taught Katie her first word, kira-kira, which means "glittering." Katie uses the term to describe anything she really likes. Reviewers unanimously applauded Kadohata for the work. Jennifer Brabander of The Horn Book Magazine claimed that "the novel captures both the specific experience of being Japanese American in the 1950s and the wider experience of illness and loss." Time for Kids commented on Kadohata's particularly strong female characters, and Publishers Weekly claimed that the book fairly shines.
During World War II (1939–45) the United States and its allies were fighting against Germany, Italy, and Japan. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, calling for the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. Internment camps are areas created to detain certain individuals, usually of a specific ethnic or religious background; such camps are usually created during periods of war. The reason for the order was supposedly to protect the United States against any type of espionage or terrorist attack. Since then, however, the act has been viewed as a major violation of civil rights and the period a bleak time in U.S. history.
Following President Roosevelt's order, Japanese Americans were directed to report to control stations to register. From there they were required to relocate their entire families to one of ten internment camps located in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. Cynthia Kadohata's father was interned in the Poston camp on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in the Sonoran Desert. Since they were only allowed to bring what they could carry, most Japanese Americans had to sell the majority of their belongings. Many people took advantage of the situation and purchased items, such as cars, at greatly undervalued prices. Their possessions were also stolen and their homes vandalized, which ultimately resulted in millions of dollars of property loss.
Between 1942 and 1945, approximately 120,000 people, many of whom were American citizens, or Nisei, lived in the internment camps, which were sometimes called concentration camps. All detainees were required to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States even though they were not released upon signing. The majority readily agreed to sign because they wanted to show their loyalty. Some, however, refused, and as a result approximately eight thousand Japanese were deported, returned to their country. Those who remained continued to show their allegiance to America by flying the American flag and saluting the flag each morning and evening. In 1943, as the war effort escalated, Japanese American males were even drafted into the U.S. Army. Two all-Japanese American units were created, including the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which is considered to be one of the most honored military units in U.S. history.
In 1988, the U.S. Congress created a bill that formally apologized to all Japanese American internees and their families. Any individual who had been interned in one of the ten camps was offered a onetime compensation of $20,000.
On January 17, 2005, a fifteen-member committee of librarians and children's literature experts announced that Kira-Kira had won the 2005 John Newbery Award. Kadohata was alerted by phone at 4:26 A.M., and as she told Bob Minzesheimer, she "jumped up and down like an idiot," waking up her seventeen-month-old "who was cranky the rest of the morning." According to the Seattle Times, committee head Susan Faust sang praises for Kira-Kira at the awards ceremony held on January 19 in Boston: "What's really compelling here is the quietude of the book, in that there's both pathos [arousing feelings of sympathy] and humor, and I think the book kind of radiates a sense of hope from the inside out."
Following her Newbery win Kadohata got a chance to do her favorite thing—travel the country—as she visited schools and libraries across the United States to speak about Kira-Kira and life as an author. Her traveling days had to be limited, however, because she had her young son, who she adopted in 2004, waiting for her at home. Kadohata lives in Los Angeles with son, Sammy, and the other love of her life, her Doberman dog, Shika Kojika, whose name means "deer, little deer." When she was asked by Aminah Sallam of Time for Kids about what she considers to be kira-kira, Kadohata responded, "My son's eyes, my boyfriend, my dog, sitting outside when the sky is blue, traveling by road, and seeing the sky in the countryside where the stars are bright."
In 2005, Kadohata was hard at work on her next children's book, Weedflower, slated to be released in 2006. Like her previous novels, Weedflower was inspired by her family's history. Kadohata's father's family lived in an internment camp on the Colorado River Indian Reservation during World War II, and the story provides a fictionalized look at a friendship that springs up between a Japanese American girl living at the camp and a young American Indian boy. When researching Weedflower, Kadohata spoke with her father to get details. As she explained to USA Today , her father asked, "Who cares about that now?" Kadohata's response: "I do, Dad." And, given the amount of acclaim her previous books have received, soon thousands of others will know the story and share the care.
Brabander, Jennifer. "Review of Kira-Kira. The Horn Book Magazine (March–April 2004): p. 183.
Emery, Theo. "Top Honors in Kids Books Announced." The Seattle Times (January 19, 2005): p. F3.
Kakutani, Michiko. "Review of The Floating World. " New York Times (June 30, 1989): p. B4.
Kendall, Lisa See. "Interview: Cynthia Kadohata." Publishers Weekly (August 3, 1992): p. 48.
Minzesheimer, Bob. "Kadohata Knows Sense of 'Standing Out'." USA Today (January 18, 2005): p. O3D.
"Review of Kira-Kira. " Publishers Weekly (February 9, 2004): p. 81.
Roback, Diane. "First-time Winners for Newbery, Caldecott." Publishers Weekly (January 24, 2005): pp. 22–24.
Home Page of Cynthia Kadohata. http://www.kira-kira.us/ (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Sallam, Aminah. "TFK Talks with Cynthia Kadohata." TimeforKids.com (February 28, 2005). http://www.timeforkids.com/TFK/kidscoops/story/0,14989,1028042,00.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).