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The Thing About Luck Paperback – June 3, 2014
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From School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-Fans of Kadohata's Kira-Kira (S & S, 2004) will welcome this similarly gentle, character-driven exploration of familial bonds, this time set in the contemporary Midwest. With their parents called away to care for relatives in Japan, 12-year-old Summer and her younger brother, Jaz, accompany their grandparents, performing the grueling work that comes with the harvest season. In her likable voice, Summer observes the varying excitement, tedium, and challenges of harvesting wheat, sprinkling her narration with casual turns of phrase such as "OMG" and "epic fail" that will endear her to readers. Strong family ties suffuse this novel with a tremendous amount of heart. Though Summer's brother has been diagnosed with a number of disorders, she prefers to think of him as simply "intense," and, like most siblings, is alternately protective of and annoyed by his idiosyncrasies. Her grandparents, comically strict Obaachan and kindly Jiichan, bring warmth and humor with their cultural and generational differences. Kadohata expertly captures the uncertainties of the tween years as Summer navigates the balance of childlike concerns with the onset of increasingly grown-up responsibilities. She ponders the fragility of life after a brush with death from malaria, experiences newfound yearnings upon becoming preoccupied with a boy, and bravely steps up to save the day when her grandfather falls ill. The book's leisurely pace and extensive information about grain harvesting require some amount of patience from readers, but their investment will be rewarded by Summer's satisfying journey to self-actualization.-Allison Tran, Mission Viejo Library, CAα(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* It seems that if Summer’s Japanese American family didn’t have bad luck, they’d have no luck at all. Certainly good luck (kouun) is elusive. Consider that Summer has had malaria; her little brother, Jaz, is friendless; her parents have to fly to Japan to take care of elderly relatives; and her grandmother (Obaa-chan) and grandfather (Jii-chan) must pay the mortgage by coming out of retirement to work for a custom harvesting company. When the siblings accompany their grandparents on the harvest, Summer helps her grandmother, a cook, while Jaz is Jaz: intense, focused, and bad-tempered. At first, things go reasonably well, but then Jii-chan becomes sick, and it appears that it might be up to Summer to save the day. Will she succeed? Kadohata has written a gentle family story that is unusual in its focus on the mechanics of wheat harvesting. Readers may skim the more arcane aspects of the labor-intensive work, focusing instead on the emotionally rich and often humorous dynamics of Summer’s relationship with her old-fashioned but endearing grandparents and her troubled younger brother. Another engaging novel from the Newbery Medal–winning Kadohata. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: With the blogosphere already starting to buzz, and author appearances and web promotions planned, Kadohata’s already sizable audience will likely increase with this title. Grades 4-8. --Michael Cart --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Twelve-year-old Summer is a survivor. She has recently recovered from malaria, which she contracted when an infected mosquito bit her. Now, even though she is terrified of mosquitos, she draws pictures of them in her sketchbook—a most unusual way to confront her fear. Unfortunately, her malaria is just the beginning of a long season of bad luck for Summer and her family. Her parents suddenly have to go to Japan for a family emergency, which means her grandparents have to come out of retirement to take their place working as cross-country wheat harvesters. This is not going to be easy, as Summer’s grandmother recently started suffering from excruciating back pain. Also, Summer and her brother Jaz, who can’t seem to make a single friend because he’s so different, have to come along with their grandparents and help out.
As someone with Japanese heritage, I thought it was super cool to read a book in which two of the characters go by Obaachan (“Grandma”) and Jiichan (“Grandpa”), nearly identical to what I call my own grandparents. Also, Summer mentions Japanese cultural things here and there, such as umeboshi (pickled plums) and jan ken pon (the Japanese version of rock, paper, scissors).
However, as I said before, you don’t have to be Japanese to appreciate this book, not by any means. Summer doesn’t make a big deal out of her ethnic heritage—it’s just one part of who she is. Nor do you have to have any knowledge of wheat harvesting or malaria. Summer talks about wheat harvesting and her bout with malaria matter-of-factly as part of her life experience. And I think that’s the beauty of this book. It’s not really about getting malaria, or being Japanese, or working as a wheat harvester. What it’s really about is one girl’s experience with a season of bad luck, unwanted responsibilities, her first crush, mixed embarrassment and pride for her family, feelings of inadequacy, and the discovery of her inner strength. Those things are pretty universal, no matter what your background or experience.
Spoiler alert: Summer and her family do not get out of their spell of bad luck by winning the lottery. "The Thing About Luck" shows that bad luck just happens sometimes, and the best way to combat it is to look inside yourself and figure out what you can do to make a positive change.
The Thing About Luck is narrated by Summer, a twelve-year-old girl, who is the daughter and granddaughter of Japanese-American wheat harvesters, who travel from farm to farm during harvest season. Summer’s parents have returned to Japan to care for some sick relatives, leaving Summer and her brother, Jaz, with their grandparents.
Summer’s grandmother is strict and formal, and rides Summer mercilessly. She is harsh and mean and demanding. But her grandfather tells Summer and Jaz bedtime stories and reminds them: “You find magic everywhere, in wheat field, in mosquito, even here” (“in the town of Lost Springs, Wyoming, which had a population of four”). Obaachan and Jiichan had an arranged marriage and have been together over fifty years, and they gripe at each other incessantly.
The book follows Summer, Jaz, and their grandparents during part of one harvest season. Summer is at a critical age. She is making the transition into adulthood, becoming more responsible, and figuring out the deal with boys. Her grandparents are getting older, her brother is getting weirder, she is growing up, and the whole family is suffering from a year of bad luck.
The Thing About Luck won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature this year. The reading level is very basic (AR level 4.7), but it tackles a lot of issues, including cultural differences, generational differences, anxiety (Summer has a pretty intense fear of mosquitos following a bout of malaria), and autism (Summer’s brother has been to three different doctors and received three different diagnoses: OCD, ADHD, and PDD-NOS). It’s also an informative look at the life of traveling wheat harvesters (something I, for one, knew nothing about).
The writing is smooth and easy, and the book is peppered with cute illustrations (Summer’s drawings of mosquitos and combines and such).