Cynthia Kadohata’s storied career includes a Newbery Medal (Kira-Kira), a National Book Award (The Thing About Luck), and a whole host of starred reviews for her books for children and adults. What can we learn from Kadohata about writing kidlit? I read The Thing About Luck to find out.
1. Custom harvesting can be interesting.
I live in Iowa, but as a “city slicker” I never thought I would read a book about harvesting.
Summer, the protagonist, comes from a family of custom harvesters, workers who spend the season traveling to different states to harvest wheat. And Kadohata’s relatively lengthy explanations of how custom harvesters work only add to the story––we need to understand them to understand Summer’s world. They build to a satisfying climax where knowing a little bit about farm machinery definitely helps.
Because Kadohata writes in a way that ensures we care about these characters, she makes custom harvesting fascinating––even to city slickers.
2. There’s beauty in the bleak.
In The Thing About Luck, the flat, raw landscape of the wheat fields has a poetry to it, and that poetry gives a rhythm to the character’s lives. Summer’s life is harsh, like the landscape, but it’s also beautiful. For all her bad luck, Summer’s life is filled with joy. She relishes small moments, like beginning to understand a book, playing with her dog, or saying something smart in front of a boy.
The wheat is ready for harvest, but Summer’s life is just budding. As “the dust of her personality begins to settle,” the book evokes that wistful realization: I’m growing up. Kadohata strikes just the right tone here, and her setting helps her do it.
3. Voice is everything.
So, on some level we all know this. But when you come across a book that does voice this well, it becomes clear why voice is so, so crucial to making a story work. Summer narrates with a voice that’s somehow both no-nonsense and dreamy, sensitive but also resilient. She wins us over with her deep love for her brother and her grandparents, and Kadohata lingers in those sweet internal moments when Summer expresses these feelings.
Light touches in Summer’s narration––like when she directly addresses the reader: “Stick with me; I’m almost done explaining what happens in the field!”––add to her spark, and have the appealing effect of making it seem like this wonderful young woman is extending her care toward us, too.
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