Sunday, January 17, 2010

FitG Update: Kira-Kira & Mexican WhiteBoy

I'm practically tap-dancing with joy, because I just read two excellent, outstanding, brilliant books in a row: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata and Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Pena. They were both amazing, and yet, so different. The only thing they really have in common is that they grabbed me out of my own, small world and set me down in theirs.

Kira-Kira is set in the 1950's in the deep south. It follows two Japanese-American sisters, Lynn and Katie, who are bound to each other not only by blood, but by a deep love for one another. Lynn explains the world to Katie. She's bossy, brilliant, beautiful. Katie absolutely adores her sister. When Lynn becomes terminally ill, Kadohata offers us a touching account, through Katie's eyes, of her family's struggle to keep Lynn alive.

I loved the Japanese angle on this book. If this had been a white family, the story would have been completely different. I thought it was so interesting -- and real -- how Lynn's family dealt with her illness, how they kept it a secret from Katie for so long, how they suffered quietly, and yet, how their Japanese community came together to support them in their time of need. I think my favorite character, after Katie and Lynn, is their father's older brother. He's loud and obnoxious, but he also surprised me by being Katie's soft-hearted comforter.

A well-written book is nothing less than a work of art. The author knows exactly how much to say and exactly when to say it. Kadohata's characters' rich, vivid and varied personalities, her settings, and the details she chooses to include all work together to attach her readers' heartstrings to her story. I love that balance and I wonder how an author develops a sense for when a scene is just right.

Mexican WhiteBoy is no less sensational. In fact, I think this has become one of my favorite books ever.

First of all, Matt de la Pena penned incredible dialogue. You can hear these kids talking in your head. They're real. When I finished the book, I was ready to get online and google Danny Lopez to find out if he actually made it into the major leagues. This book felt that real to me.

I loved Danny, but you have to love Danny. He's sweet, innocent, hard-working, talented, cute. He's also struggling because his dad moved to Mexico three years ago and left his family behind. He writes letters to his dad, telling him about all the amazing things he's doing and accomplishing. But in real life, Danny's silent, digging into his arms with his fingernails so he can feel the emotional pain that's chewing away at his insides. Danny's spending the summer with the Mexican side of his family in National City. It's run down. The kids are tough, street-smart. Danny doesn't really fit in. He doesn't even speak Spanish. But this summer changes his life. He makes a friend, Uno, who doesn't even realize he's walking with Danny through a healing and truth-finding process that will help Danny overcome his fear and internal pain.

This is a powerful book with great characters. I developed a soft spot for Uno's dad, an ex-gangster who spends every weekend with his son, giving him long lectures about how his life changed once he was saved by God. Hilarious, wonderful, powerful, all at once. Even his nonsense tended toward the profound, as weird as that sounds.

Like Kadohata, de la Pena is an artist. He knows exactly the information we need and exactly when we need it. The conversations between his characters are perfectly pitched. They never drag. Characters never say something uncharacteristic just so the author can make a point. I love that. I love that he knows he's telling us something important just by keeping things real, describing truth.

I've started reading Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. No offense to Asher, but after reading de la Pena, Thirteen Reasons Why is like reading an exchange between cardboard cutouts. So far, I'm not convinced, I'm not pulled into the story. I'm having a terrible time swallowing the premise. If some mysterious person sent me a bunch of cassette tapes in the mail, I think they'd end up in my trashcan....

I guess that's what happens when you read two amazing books in a row. You just start getting picky.

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