Sometimes it’s hard to say what a book is about when there is no grand adventure, car chase or great battle. Sometimes a book is just about one girl, one summer and a slow discovery. That description doesn’t sound like much, but The Thing About Luck, the latest novel by Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata, is just such a book, and every word of it is worth reading.
Twelve-year-old Summer is a Japanese-American girl living in the heart of wheat country with her younger brother, parents and grandparents. Every year they go to work for contractors who harvest acres and acres of wheat for farmers in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. When Summer’s parents must go to Japan to help some of their elderly relatives, she goes on harvest with only her brother, Jaz, and her very Japanese grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan.
As the narrator, Summer tells us about their year of no good luck, or kouun in Japanese. Her grandmother’s back is causing her excruciating pain, her little brother’s only friend moved away, her parents have to be gone a long time, and Summer herself suffered from a rare case of malaria caused by a mosquito bite. By the time they leave to begin the harvest, she has recovered, but she’s obsessed with mosquitoes and bug spray. She says facing death has made her think about life differently than most 12-year-old girls. Her observations about herself, about life and death, about boys and friendship, are told simply and beautifully—and compellingly. Near the end of the book, she is faced with a challenge: to be brave and make a hard choice that might bring an end to their year of hard luck.
Kadohata’s ability to write in a young girl’s voice is without question. Middle school girls have already fallen in love with her earlier books (Kira-Kira, Cracker!, Weedflower) and they will no doubt adore this one, too. Even if it seems to be about nothing in particular—finding out who you are in a moment of a real-world crisis is everything to a 12-year-old girl.
Jennifer Bruer Kitchel is the librarian for a pre-K through 8th grade Catholic school in Nashville.