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Japanese Grandparents, Custom Harvesting, Airport Malaria: Elements in an Award-Winning Children’s Novel

Cover of the National Book Award winner for young adult novel: he Thing About Luck.

The young adult novel follows a Japanese family farming in Kansas.

Last month, Cynthia Kadohata won the National Book Award for her children’s novel “The Thing About Luck.” The book follows 12-year-old Summer as she travels with her Japanese grandparents for a season of harvesting work in the Midwest. We spoke with Kadohata about the book.

“The Thing About Luck” is set among seasonal workers called custom harvesters. Had you heard of this before you wrote the book?

I’d never heard of it. I have a book called Cracker that had won an award in Kansas, so I was in Kansas. A woman said to me, oh that family over there are custom harvesters. I said, what’s that? She said, that’s when you travel around harvesting wheat for different farmers. I was taking the train home from Kansas to Los Angeles, and I sent this text to my editor — it was the middle of the night — mentioning custom harvesters. I was having a lot of problems with what I was working on, so I dropped it and began working on custom harvesters. That was 2010. A month and a half later, I was visiting with a custom harvesting family.

Summer almost dies from airport malaria. What’s that?

Airport malaria is when a mosquito from somewhere else ends up on a plane. Once the mosquito gets off, you get bitten by the mosquito at the airport and contract malaria. It’s just sheer, incredible bad luck.

How did you even know that airport malaria existed?

I actually interviewed a woman who makes mosquito jewelry. She had contracted airport malaria, and now she’s obsessed with mosquitos.

I needed something to make Summer unique. Someone made a list of various things I could have her interested in. Mosquitos was just one word on the list. It stuck so I just ran with it. Mosquitos are amazing. They’re built to find you and bite you.

Are there aspects of Summer’s experience as a member of a Japanese American family living in Kansas that mirror your own growing up in Georgia and Arkansas?

There was more racism when I lived in Georgia and Arkansas. Today that’s not so true. It was a very different experience for her than it was for me.

I was very curious about how a blue collar Japanese family ended up in Kansas, but it occurred to me that younger readers might not question it.

I do think you can take it for granted now that anybody can live anywhere. There’s obviously places with a lot fewer Japanese. Certainly when I was growing up in Arkansas, there were very few. But even if there’s only one living in Kansas, that just seemed okay to me. I did have a teacher once who said if you’re going to have Japanese Americans in a small town then the story has to be about racism. I just don’t think that’s true anymore.

Are you working on something now?

I am. My son was adopted from Kazakhstan. I am writing a book about a 12-year-old Romanian boy who was adopted from Romania by American parents. Now this family that he’s in is in the process of adopting a little baby from Kazakhstan.

Is your son involved in the writing process?

No. He’s totally underwhelmed by the idea of being a writer.

Is there anything that you would like kids to take away from this novel?

I’d like them empathize with the characters, to see that there are different worlds that they themselves are not involved with. I want it to be something that helps them understand the world. I think that’s what I took away from the process of writing it, and I guess that’s what I’d like them to take away from reading it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.