I loved the library I went to as a child. Built in 1906, the Carnegie Library in Moscow was truly the most magical place I knew. The children's section was in the basement, and there, among the soft crinkle of Brodart covers and the distant burble of storytime, was the Newbery Award poster I would study on nearly every visit. The Newbery -- awarded each year by the American Library Association -- is to children's books what the Oscar is to movies; for me that little gold seal meant I wasn't likely to be disappointed. Sometimes I ran into klunkers -- in the 83-year history of the Newbery, there was bound to be the occasional Shadow of a Bull or Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. But what did that matter when I discovered books that are with me still today -- Caddie Woodlawn, A Wrinkle in Time, The High King, The Witch of Blackbird Pond?
This year's winner, Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata, is one of the more understated Newbery winners, but that is not to suggest in any way that it doesn't pack a serious emotional wallop. The story of a Japanese-American family trying to make do in post-war America despite poverty, racism and the slight whiff of possible family tragedy is unsentimental, yet unforgettably lovely. Young Katie remembers hours spent in the Iowa fields, lying on her back watching the night sky with her older sister, Lynn, who first teaches her the Japanese phrase kira-kira, which means "glittering"
"When I grew older," Katie recalls, "I used kira-kira to describe everything I liked: the beautiful blue sky, puppies, kittens, butterflies, colored Kleenex."
A friend who read Kira-Kira pointed out that Kadohata captures the same feeling of childhood -- the strange magic that is hope, despair, optimism and loss of innocence all at once -- that Lynda Barry does so well. And some of the themes, many of which Kadohata explores in her earlier novel for adults, The Floating World, are the same -- family issues, the dispiriting effects of poverty, racism. In that sense, Kira-Kira is one of those Newbery winners in a minor key; it's reality with all of its unvarnished ambivalence, not the fantasy/adventure of some years' Newbery winners. In terms of impact, however, Kira-Kira reverberates with meaning and richness.