Kira-Kira is a story about a young girl named Katie Takeshima and her family growing up in Georgia in the 1950s. Katie has a very special bond with her older sister Lynn, who teaches her everything including the meaning of kira-kira: the Japanese word for glittering or sparkling. Lynn loves the natural world and can find magic in the most ordinary things. She and Katie talk for hours about all they'll accomplish in their futures. Lynn excels in school and tries to impart her zest for learning onto Katie, who prefers play and mischief to traditional schooling.
At the beginning of the story, Katie and her family move from a small Japanese American community in Iowa to a town in the deep south in Georgia where they are one of the only Japanese American families. Their Uncle Son has a job there and was able to get Katie's father and mother jobs working in a poultry processing plant. The family lives in a small and run down apartment in a building with other people who work at the plant. The plant has very harsh working conditions with extremely long, arduous hours and no breaks. The workers wish to unionize but they are intimidated by hired thugs. Meanwhile, the girls endure racism at school. Lynn explains to little Katie that the reason for the stares and teasing by their white classmates is because they are of Japanese heritage.
Katie and Lynn are best of friends and do everything together. When their brother Sam is born, Lynn helps take care of Katie and Katie helps take care of Sam. While their parents are loving and caring, they work long hours and the girls are left to manage much of the household. Lynn is often unwell but despite this, she is top of her class and has big dreams for her future. One day, Lynn, Katie, and Sam ride their bikes to have a special picnic in the fields near the poultry plant owner Mr. Lyndon's plantation. While there, little Sam gets caught in a bear trap that is inexplicably on the property and he is badly injured! Fortunately, the girls are helped by a kind neighbor, but Sam's injury causes him to limp.
Lynn's bouts of illness steadily get worse and it is finally revealed that she has Lymphoma. The parents work non stop at the poultry plant and take out a large loan in order to buy a house. Their hope is that they can live in the house of Lynn's dreams and perhaps it will help make her better. Katie constantly cares for Lynn and does whatever she can to help the family. Their parents work even longer hours to help pay for the house. Despite doing everything they can, Lynn tragically succumbs to her illness.
Mr. Takeshima is so overwhelmed with grief at Lynn's passing. He and his wife have barely any time off for mourning because of the inhumane working conditions at the plant. He is also still enraged that his son was injured by a bear trap on Mr. Lyndon's property. In his grief, Mr. Takeshima smashes the windshield of Mr. Lyndon's car and drives away. He would have gotten away with it but in order to show Katie to always do what is right, he admits his mistake to Mr. Lyndon in person. Despite his explanations, Mr. Lyndon shows no sympathy to their plight and promptly fires Mr. Takeshima.
In the end, Mr. Takeshima is able to get another job in a different plant and the family is grateful he is no longer working for Mr. Lyndon. The poultry union organizers continue their fight for better working conditions, which would include giving employees time off for mourning after a death in the family. Mrs. Takeshima had always been afraid to get involved and jeopardize her job. However, she votes in favor of the union, realizing that while it is too late for them to benefit, it could help another family.
After Lynn's passing the family grieves for many months. One day, Katie's father proposes that they go on a trip to help with their sorrows. Katie suggests going to the sea where Lynn had always dreamed of going. There they find peace looking at the world and all its natural beauty through Lynn's eyes who always saw the magic in everything.
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