After the Call: Star Charts

As I write this, I am sitting in the home of my eighty-six-year-old mother. She may be living her last months on her own — soon my siblings and I will need to make decisions. I stay here every weekend with one or both of my Dobermans, try to spend a few hours each night in the living room talking with her. We talk sometimes about our memories of Georgia and Arkansas, where my dad had worked long, difficult hours as I was growing up.

Both my parents came from impoverished families. My mom has a few lovely memories of Hawaii, where she lived, but my late father never told happy stories. I wonder if he had any. He never read a book, and he stopped going to school in fourth grade to work in the fields. I asked him once why he always worked so hard, and he said because he wanted his three kids to go to college. College back then, in our little town in Arkansas, was not what it is now — it was not someplace many young people routinely went. It was more like an audacious dream you had.

My mother was a voracious reader. I used to peer into my parents’ room and see her sitting on the bed surrounded by papers and books and colored pencils to mark passages. She made me read Scientific American articles that I couldn’t understand, and she paid me ten cents an hour to listen to tapes of people speaking French. I thought I was getting rich!

My sister, just a year and a half older than me, told me much later that we were second-class citizens in our small town; people looked down on us. But I felt quite special. Those one-and-a-half years and the awareness they brought made the difference between my memories of a magical childhood full of both darkness and light, and hers of a rather second-rate one.

I remember days of being surrounded by bees and butterflies, of playing with and feeding dogs from…­somewhere — I didn’t know. On summer nights when my father was at work, my mom, brother, sister, and I would sit on quilts in the backyard viewing the constellations. Mom would bring out star charts enclosed in cellophane and point out constellations while explaining the mythology behind them. Try as I might, I could not see the giant bear where the Big Dipper was. My mother said ancient people had seen it as clearly as if there was an actual giant bear in the sky. I believed this; I still do.

To win the Newbery for Kira-Kira, which drew so heavily on this childhood full of darkness and light, felt like a completion of those nights of gazing at the Milky Way, and believing whatever my mother told me, just because why wouldn’t I?

The other day I mentioned those star charts to my mom, and she said, quite pleased with herself, “I still have them in the filing cabinet.” She even knew which file in which drawer. It made me unreasonably happy that she somehow knew those charts were worth keeping through the decades, and that she knew exactly where they were.

I am struck lately by how heroic this small, skinny woman was, and is. I was the feral one, and she civilized me and kept me believing — to this day — that there were once bears in the sky and that we were quite possibly the luckiest family in the world to be able to sit together like that, night after night under the stars, surrounded by people who may or may not have looked down on us. It never mattered, to me.

I feel like Kira-Kira — whose manuscript I completed in 2002 — was written an eon ago. The world, and the country, seem so changed. Nonetheless, it remains to me a paean to childhood, with all the attendant pain and brightness; and most of all a testament to what parents who love you can give you, even years later.

At the Simon & Schuster office in NYC post-win.
Left to right: Caitlyn Dlouhy, Cynthia Kadohata with
baby Sammy, Susan Burke, Ginee Seo, Emma Dryden.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kadohata.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Cynthia Kadohata

Cynthia Kadohata won the Newbery Medal in 2005 for Kira-Kira (Atheneum). Vape (Dlouhy/Atheneum) is forthcoming.

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