Author Feature: Cynthia Kadohata

Cynthia Kadohata is the author of numerous books, including the 2005 Newbery Medal novel, Kira-Kira (Atheneum, 2004)(excerpt) and Weedflower (Atheneum, 2006)(excerpt), a Junior Library Guild selection.

Cynthia Kadohata on Cynthia Kadohata: “Oh, well….I was born in 1956 in Chicago and moved in 1957 to a couple of small towns in Georgia, where my father worked as a chicken sexer. Then from 1958 to 1965 I lived in Arkansas. I had a very strong Southern accent. My parents divorced, and my sister, my brother, my mother, and I moved to Chicago while my father stayed in Arkansas. By the way, I still keep in touch with nearly my entire eighth grade graduating class from Chicago. I love dogs and live in Long Beach, California, with my Doberman Shika Kojika (which means ‘deer, little deer’ in Japanese) and with my 2 1/2-year-old son, whom I adopted from Kazakhstan in 2004. My adult books are The Floating World (1989), In the Heart of the Valley of Love (1992), and The Glass Mountains. My children’s novels are Kira-Kira and the upcoming Weedflower (March 28, 2006). I also have a children’s book about the Vietnam War scheduled for Spring 2007.”

How exciting it was when Kira-Kira (Atheneum, 2004) won the Newbery medal! Looking back, how did that change your writing life? Your daily one?

It was was shocking and purely joyful. I’ve never experienced a feeling like it. The joy was just so incredibly intense. One analogy I can think of is that it was like in Chicago when we would go to Lake Michigan on windy days and the waves would hit us so hard we would fall over and even get bruised. And yet it was so much fun. The feeling when the waves hit you was thrilling and yet also a strong physical feeling.

The main way it changed my writing life was I had a lot less time to write for a while. It changed my daily life in many ways. For instance, now while I’m walking my dog I ALWAYS, literally always, think to myself at some point, I actually won the Newbery. I was also able to pay off my staggering credit card bills, since I basically adopted my son by building up credit card debt. Crazy, I know, but I wanted to raise a child so badly!

Kira-Kira followed two novels published for adults. What inspired you to write for younger readers? How would you compare writing for children versus writing for grown-ups?

Really it was my editor and long-time friend, Caitlyn Dlouhy (editor interview), who encouraged me pretty strongly to write for younger readers. I don’t know if she’ll like my saying this, but I happen to believe she’s psychic. I can say that because I’m from California and we talk like that! My previous novels were from the POV of young narrators, so the jump from adult books to children’s books wasn’t extreme.

What was the initial inspiration for Kira-Kira?

I’m not sure. I did once keep a journal when a friend of mine was dying, and I did use some of that journal in Kira-Kira. Also, for some reason the South inspires me more than the North or California. I would love to be able to write about California in the evocative way Raymond Chandler did. But for whatever reason, I haven’t been inspired in that way, at least not yet. Another inspiration was that I had sent my editor a list of ideas for children’s novels and the idea for Kira-Kira was one she especially liked.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The cancer research was fairly straightforward. I have a good friend who is head of an oncology lab and knows a lot about cancer. She put me in touch with a doctor who is an expert on cancer from that time period. I will also add that he thought my questions were basic and beneath him and I could tell that I was kind of annoying him with my lack of expertise in comparison to his. But this is just one of the minor humiliations you endure when you write a book! I appreciate his help immensely, actually, and I’m sorry I annoyed him with my lack of expertise. I think what bothered him was that I was so dogged. If I didn’t understand exactly what he was saying, I would ask over and over. The other challenges really just have to do with my having an extremely rigorous editor, or, as I call her, The Great Torturer.

You’re upcoming book is called Weedflower (Atheneum, 2006). Could you tell us a bit about the novel? What is it about?

It’s about a friendship between a Japanese American girl and a Mohave boy. The Colorado River Relocation Center was one of two Japanese internment camps located on Indian reservations. The book is the based-on-real-life story about how the meeting of these two groups of people changed the futures of both.

What inspired you to tell this story?

My father was interned in that camp. The other reason has to do with my belief that it is not just the sharing of values but the sharing of this amazing land that makes us Americans. So I wanted to write about how two groups of people sharing a land can change the world.

It’s often said that writers are readers. What are your favorite recently published books for young readers and why?

I loved Saffy’s Angel [by Hilary McKay (McElderry, 2002)] a lot because it made me laugh and cry. I know, that sounds cliche, but it’s the truth.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Walk my dog and take walks or play with my son. Period. I really don’t even have the opportunity to watch movies any longer.