Summer knows that kouun means “good luck” in Japanese, and this year her family has none of it. Just when she thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, an emergency whisks her parents away to Japan—right before harvest season. Summer and her little brother, Jaz, are left in the care of their grandparents, who come out of retirement in order to harvest wheat and help pay the bills.
The thing about Obaachan and Jiichan is that they are old-fashioned and demanding, and between helping Obaachan cook for the workers, covering for her when her back pain worsens, and worrying about her lonely little brother, Summer just barely has time to notice the attentions of their boss’s cute son. But notice she does, and what begins as a welcome distraction from the hard work soon turns into a mess of its own.
Having thoroughly disappointed her grandmother, Summer figures the bad luck must be finished—but then it gets worse. And when that happens, Summer has to figure out how to change it herself, even if it means further displeasing Obaachan. Because it might be the only way to save her family.
Cynthia Kadohata’s ode to the breadbasket of America has received six starred reviews and won the National Book Award.
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About the Author
Julia Kuo is the creator of 20 Ways to Draw a Cat and 44 Other Awesome Animals as well as the charming board book Everyone Eats. Julia also created the cover and interior artwork for Newbery Medal–winning author Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck and Place to Belong and New York Times bestselling author Jenny Han’s Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream. She lives in Chicago. Find out more online at JuliaKuo.com.
Read an Excerpt
The Thing About Luck
Kouun is “good luck” in Japanese, and one year my family had none of it. We were cursed with bad luck. Bad luck chased us around, pointing her bony finger. We got seven flat tires in six weeks. I got malaria, one of fifteen hundred cases in the United States that year. And my grandmother’s spine started causing her excruciating pain.
Furthermore, random bad smells emanated from we knew not where. And my brother, Jaz, became cursed with invisibility. Nobody noticed him except us. His best friend had moved away, and he did not know a single boy to hang around with. Even our cousins looked the other way when they saw him at our annual Christmas party. They didn’t even seem to be snubbing my brother; they just didn’t see him.
The thing about luck is that it’s like a fever. You can take fever meds and lie in bed and drink chicken broth and sleep seventeen hours in a row, but basically your fever will break when it wants to break.
In early April my parents got a call from Japan. Three elderly relatives were getting ready to die and wanted my parents to take care of them in their last weeks and months. There was nothing surprising about this. This was just the way our year was going. It was April 25 when my grandparents and Jaz delivered my parents to the airport to catch their plane to Japan. I stayed at home because the type of malaria I’d gotten was called “airport malaria.” Airport malaria is when a rogue mosquito from, say, Africa has been inadvertently carried into the United States on a jet. This infected mosquito might bite you. I got bit in Florida last summer, and I lived in Kansas. The chances that I would get malaria from going to the airport in Kansas were remote, but I’d grown so scared of mosquitoes that sometimes I didn’t even like stepping outside. It really wasn’t fair—I was only twelve, and yet already I was scared of the entire outside world.
During the 1940s there were thousands of malaria cases in the United States. Then in the fifties the experts thought malaria here was eradicated. But every so often, someone still caught it. Sometimes you would get your picture in the newspaper. My picture was even in Time magazine!
Obaachan and Jiichan, my grandmother and grandfather on my mother’s side, were both sixty-seven and lived with us in Littlefield, Kansas. “Obaachan” was more formal than “Baachan,” but it was what she wanted Jaz and me to call her.
When harvest season arrived in May of our horrible year, Jiichan planned to come out of retirement to work as a combine driver for a custom harvesting company called Parker Harvesting, Inc. (I’ll explain about custom harvesting in a minute or two.) My grandmother would work as a cook for the same harvester, with me as her helper.
We’d all worked for the Parkers before. But it was the first time my parents wouldn’t be there, which meant only my grandparents would be paying the mortgage during harvest this year. I didn’t quite understand what “paying the mortgage” meant, but apparently, it was a constant struggle. Another phrase that came up a lot was “paying down the principal,” as in, “If we could just pay down the principal, I’d feel like we were getting somewhere.” I used to think that “paying down the principal” meant they wanted to bribe the principal at one of my future schools, like they would give this principal some money, and then someday the principal would let me into high school despite my iffy grades.
Anyway. As soon as my grandparents got home from dropping off my parents, changes were implemented. My mother had told Jaz, “Don’t worry. You’ll make a friend when you least expect it.” My grandparents were more proactive. It seems Obaachan and Jiichan had a bright idea they’d been hiding from us.
Obaachan made Jaz and me sit on the floor in front of the coffee table while she and Jiichan sat on the couch. “We having meeting-party,” she announced regally. “We invite boys we will consider for friendship with Jaz.” She turned to me. “Make list with him. I no interfere.”
“A list of people to invite?” I asked. My Doberman, Thunder, tried to push himself between me and the table. I pushed back, and we just sat there, leaning hard into each other.
“No! A list!” she snapped at me.
Wasn’t that what I had just said? I finally got up and moved to a different side of the table. Still unsure what she wanted, I got a pen and paper.
“Pencil! You may need to erase.”
I got a pencil and readied myself. “Should I number the list?” I asked.
My grandfather nodded sagely. “Agenda,” he said. “List for boys we invite, agenda for party.”
“No interfere!” Obaachan said to Jiichan.
“You interfere first!”
Obaachan and Jiichan had been married for forty-nine years, and my mother always said that after that number of years, you no longer had to be polite all the time. It sometimes seemed that in our house, I was the only one who had to use my manners. Jaz didn’t have to because he had issues. When I’m sixty-seven, in fifty-five years, I supposed that I would finally be able to dispense with my manners.
I thought Jiichan and Obaachan talked to each other the way that they did because they’d had an arranged marriage. Obaachan said that if I had an arranged marriage, I would never give or receive a broken heart. If I grew up beautiful, I would never break any man’s heart, and if I grew up plain, nobody would break my heart. If I rebelled and wanted love, however, all bets were off. Broken hearts would come my way like locusts.
“Summer! You in rah-rah land.” She never said “la-la land,” and I never corrected her.
I hurriedly wrote Number one on the paper in the left-hand margin.
“No number,” Obaachan said. “Arrange by time. I have to tell you everything?”
Jiichan picked up the paper, studied the Number one, and set the paper back down. “I agree. Arrange by time.”
I erased the Number one and wrote in One o’clock p.m. I made sure not to flick the eraser bits onto the floor, because if I did, Obaachan would be so upset that she might fall over dead.
“Noon!” barked Obaachan. I made the change. “Continue. First write day on top of paper in big letter. Day for meeting is next Saturday. Then continue.”
“What would you like to do at noon?” I asked Jaz.
“Play with LEGOs. I want a LEGO party.”
“Not really party,” Jiichan said. He was cleaning his teeth with the floss he always carried in his shirt pocket. Sometimes he flossed during dinner, right at the table. See what I mean about manners? Can you imagine what your parents would do if you started to floss at the dinner table? But he constantly seemed to have something between his teeth. “More of meeting than party,” he said.
“Noon lunchtime,” Obaachan said. “You feed boys first. Boys always hungry. Never mind. I no interfere. But no food, no friend. What I just say?”
“No food, no friend,” Jaz and I repeated. Obaachan sometimes made us repeat something she had just said, to prove we were listening.
Jaz turned to Obaachan. “Obaachan, will you make sandwiches?”
“Summer make. I her mentor.”
I found myself already starting to feel stressed. What if I made ham sandwiches and the boys wanted tuna fish? What if I used regular bread and one of the boys needed gluten-free, like my friend Alyssa had to eat because of her allergies? What if I used too much mayonnaise? Arghhh!
Still, next to Noon I wrote Sandwich eating.
Jiichan pounded on the paper. “Lunch!” he cried out passionately. “Not ‘sandwich eating’! It called ‘lunch’!” He clutched at his heart. “You kids go to kill me.” Apparently, about once every couple of weeks, he thought we were going to kill him.
“What kind of sandwiches would you like?” I asked Jaz, still worrying about those. “I don’t want to make the wrong kind.”
“I’ll ask around at school. I can’t believe this is happening. I’m really going to have a meeting-party.” He got up to look at himself in a mirror over our fake fireplace and said, “You are going to have a meeting-party.”
Jiichan was now standing and staggering away from us with his hands on his heart. Jaz and I watched him calmly. “I die, scatter ashes,” Jiichan said. “No keep in hole in wall at cemetery. You hear me?”
“Yes, Jiichan,” we said.
“Good. Then I die happy.”
I wrote down LEGOs, one o’clock. My brother had approximately one thousand dollars’ worth of LEGOs. Seriously. I counted once. LEGOs were one of our biggest expenses and the only thing we splurged on.
“Good plan!” Jiichan said. “That brilliant!” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic as he peered over my shoulder from his death throes.
“How long is the meeting-party?” Jaz asked.
“I think most parties are two hours,” I answered. “So I guess that’s the end of the agenda?” Nobody answered, so I made a line underneath the agenda and laid down the pencil.
“Who should I invite?” Jaz asked. “Should it be just kids who I think might come, or should it be kids who might not come but on the other hand you never know? Should it be just kids in my class, or should it be all the kids in my grade? Should it be boys and girls or just boys? Should it be only kids who might not even know who I am even though I know who they are? Should it—”
Jiichan held up his palm to quiet Jaz. “Invite whole fifth grade,” he said wisely. We all looked at him, and he nodded. “That way hurt nobody’s feelings.”
Jaz stared at him doubtfully for a moment, but then his face turned from doubtful to ecstatic. I could almost hear him thinking, Wow, the whole school might come to my meeting-party!
Then my grandparents wanted Jaz to draw invitations. He was a good artist in kind of a weird way. Like, he never drew pictures of anything recognizable, but if you needed a totally psychedelic design, he was your man. But he wanted to buy invitations because he thought they were more official. We ended up driving thirty miles to a 99-cent store in a larger town. After loud and passionate debate, we bought several boxes of dinosaur invitations. On Monday, Jaz distributed them to all the kids in the fifth grade at his school.
So as not to jinx the party, we weren’t supposed to talk to one another about it. But we could pray all we wanted, in front of several sprigs of silk cherry blossoms on the coffee table. We did this the night before the party. Cherry blossoms, as the harbingers of spring, were important to Japanese farmers. My grandmother mumbled in Japanese as I knelt beside her. I could make out a word occasionally—like unmei for “destiny.”
As Obaachan muttered on, I prayed in my head: Please let my brother have a successful meeting-party. Let the kids have fun, let him make at least one friend, preferably two. Please, please, please.
That night I drew in my notebook like I always did. I didn’t draw very well, so each picture took me weeks. I copied them from photographs of mosquitoes I found.
One time I thought I had a perfect drawing, so I sent it to a mosquito expert, and this is what he said: “Looks like an Anopheles, but the proboscis is ‘hairy’ and the palps look like a thin line, so this is not a good representation, but could easily be changed (make palps more than a line and get rid of bristle on mouthparts and you have an Anopheles female). The problem is that most (but not all) Anopheles in the U.S. tend to have spots on their wings, which these drawings lack.” Wow, epic fail on my part!
It was strange because I knew that if I had almost been killed by a car, I wouldn’t have become fascinated with cars. If I had almost drowned, I wouldn’t have become obsessed with water. But the more I looked at mosquitoes, even the same type that had infected me, the more delicate they seemed. Fragile, even. And yet one had almost taken my life. It was like now we couldn’t be separated. I mean, if I saw one on my arm, I wouldn’t hesitate to smash it or even run screaming down the highway. They terrified me. But still, we were inseparable.
What People are Saying About This
"Author Cynthia Kadohata does an excellent job of portraying the intensity of the lives of the farmers whose entire fortunes rest on their wheat crops being harvested at exactly the right point when the grain is mature and tests at the ideal moisture content. Any delay in harvesting combined with an untimely rain can conceivably wipe out the crop and the farmers' future, and readers get an eyeful of the ridiculously long hours the custom combine operators are forced to work when rain is forecast in the too-near future.
It clearly comes down to everybody working no matter what, or being out of a job.
What is most intense about the story is the position in which twelve year-old Summer finds herself. Having, myself, grown up an eldest child who worked alongside my parents, I well-remember what it is like to feel the need to take on adult worries and responsibilities at a young age. But I never faced the littlest fraction of what this girl on the cusp of adolescence is handed.
Summer's brother Jaz is a child with significant social challenges, being that he is developmentally somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Summer must always be a good big sister to him and be his support system. Her grandmother has a severe chronic back condition on top of sometimes being prickly and often being difficult to understand. When the situation arises, Summer must be able to immediately prepare the meals for the crew by herself and smooth over the tensions that arise. Then, when her grandfather becomes seriously ill just at the time when the crew is being squeezed the hardest by impending bad weather, Summer is forced to take on the worry of whether her grandparents will lose their jobs, and whether this will result in her parents defaulting on their mortgage and losing the house in Kansas that they all share.
It all makes an earlier event in the story where Summer is faced with telling the truth in a very uncomfortable situation look like child's play.
Realizing that THE THING ABOUT LUCK is set in the present time, and there are girls like Summer out there today, wandering the nation's breadbasket with their migrant worker parents or grandparents, makes this an even more powerful read about an America that is a whole different world.
This is going to be a book well-worthy of adoption for sixth grade English curriculums.
Reading Group Guide
1) Exploring the bonds that bind a family is one of the major themes of the story. What are some of the expressions of closeness that the sisters display?
2) What are some of the characteristics the sisters share? What are some of their differences?
3) What adjectives would you use to describe Shelby? Marilyn? Lakey? Maddie? Helen?
4) The impact of Helen's behavior on the sisters is complex. How does her attitude toward men shape the sisters' attitudes? How does her use of her beauty affect them?
5) How do the sisters view their mom's beauty? How do they reflect her values?
6) In many families the siblings take care of one another. Describe the relationship of Shelby and Maddie before they go to live with their fathers and then while they are separated.
7) How do the fathers relate to Helen now that they are no longer with her? How do they relate to their daughters? How do they relate to one another?
8) The discussion of marriage comes up many times in the story. How has their mother's desire not to marry affected the sisters?
9) Helen and the fathers are described as outsiders. Helen found each man through their shared loneliness. Have the sisters also become outsiders? Can they change?
10) Which sister is the most rebellious? Who is the most compliant? Who is the most motherly? Give examples that support your choices.
11) We learn both from our parents and from our surroundings. Do these characters reflect both? Give examples of what the sisters have learned from their parents. Now give examples of things they have learned from their surroundings. List some of the things the sisters have experienced because of their unusual lifestyle.
12) The isolation that the sisters felt when they were sent to their fathers' houses was both geographic and personal. With the technology available today, including cell phones, camera phones, and Internet with social network sites, how might the girls' situation be altered?
13) How did the powwow process help the sisters communicate? Did this always work for them?
14) How does each sister view her mother? Her father? Herself?
15) What personality characteristics do the girls share with their fathers? How were Mack and Marilyn similar? Lakey and Larry? Shelby and Jiro? Maddie and Mr. Bronson?
16) What character has changed the most in this story? Has any character remained unchanged?
Research and Activities
1) Did you understand the special language, thetheguh, that the sisters speak (page 25)? Try writing a sentence using their special language. Have you ever made up your own language? Try making one up.
2) Diagram on paper the complex family tree of Shelby and her sisters. Include Helen, with all of the fathers, sisters, and any other brothers and sisters and spouses. How does this compare to a traditional family tree?
3) Get a map of the United States and map the places mentioned in the story as the girls travel with their mom, when they are with their dads, and when they run away. Where do they end up?
4) Each of the girls has a distinct look they feel helps define them. Using magazines, can you find pictures that you think show characteristics of a Japanese-Italian girl? A full Japanese girl? A Japanese-Anglo? Put these pictures together to create their family. How significant is physical appearance in the bond of families?