Cynthia Kadohata's last two books 2005 Newbery Medal-winner Kira-Kira and Weedflower explore the experiences of Japanese families trying to build happy lives in America. The stories' protagonists are observant young girls who, even as they play children's games and wonder at the behavior of the adults around them, are able to discern the joy and beauty found in strong family bonds.
Kadohata's new book for young readers, Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam, is as moving, humorous and interesting as her previous young adult novels. But this time around, the observant, clever narrator is a bit different: It's a dog. A dog named Cracker, to be precise—a female German shepherd sent to Vietnam to serve as a scout dog during the war. The author says she's long been trying to sell a dog book to her editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy.
"I sent her a dog-from-another- planet idea. I spent all this time on it, but it didn't thrill her. So I kept looking for dog topics. When I sent her the idea for Cracker! she bought the book on the basis of just that e-mail," Kadohata explains from her California home, with her baby son, Sam, in her lap and her other baby her Doberman, Shika Kojika lying by her side.
A lifelong love for and fascination with dogs fed the author's desire to write a dog-centric book. In fact, she laughingly says, "dog-related childhood drama may well have been a contributing factor: When my sister and I were young, my mother would let us get a dog. We'd fall madly in love with it, and she'd decide we weren't taking good enough care of it and get rid of it. This happened five times, and I'd be just hysterical every time the dog was gone. In fact," she adds, "when my ex-husband and I first got a dog, he said it was like a nuclear explosion all that stuff from childhood coming back." Today, the author has in Shika Kojika a devoted companion ("my dog is always with me," she says) and in Cracker! a unique, compelling story that will captivate and educate readers.
The background of the story thousands of dogs were sent to Vietnam during the war to serve as scouts (German shepherds) and trackers (Labrador retrievers) may well be unfamiliar to many readers. But the real-life details about the dogs, gleaned from the personal stories Kadohata heard from Vietnam veterans, quickly bring the past to life.
"The dog handlers I spoke with were really enthusiastic about the book for that very reason that people don't know this went on—and very passionate about their dogs," Kadohata says. In fact, many of the men have difficulty talking about their dogs even today because, of the 5,000 dogs that went to Vietnam, none returned. And why didn't thousands of hard-working dogs make it back to America? "Because the dogs were considered military equipment," the author says, "and they were put down. Some of the handlers are still angry because they thought it was unnecessary a lot of them would have been willing to pay to transport their dogs home."
Cracker! not only pays tribute to the dogs who worked to serve their country, but to the owners who shared their pets and the trainers who became devoted, dedicated partners to the animals. The characters are complex and fully realized, making for an engrossing reading experience. Cracker! often is suspenseful, too; there are several scenes that can only be described as action sequences (and yes, nail-biting will likely ensue).
Initially, though, the human characters in the novel weren't quite ready for prime time: "When I handed in the first draft, my editor said the dog character was more fully developed than the human characters!" Kadohata recalls.
It's just that sort of from-the-hip feedback that the author welcomes from her editor, Dlouhy, who she says is one of her closest friends and the person who first suggested she write a children's book. (Previously, Kadohata published two adult novels.) "It's a good partnership," she says, "and she always just tells me, 'If you'd done what I told you in the first place. . . .'" Friendship is also at the heart of Kadohata's novel. The friendship between the German shepherd and her owner, 11-year-old Willie, and the bond forged between the dog and her trainer, 17-year-old Rick, are powerful examples of the ways in which twosomes can be strong and productive, loving and even life-saving. It's a heartening message, especially in our uncertain times, and it offers yet another way we can learn from our country's wartime past.
Linda M. Castellitto writes from North Carolina.