Kirby Larson Talks with Roger

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Kirby Larson. Photo: Meryl Schenker

I met Kirby Larson when she won the Scott O'Dell award for Historical Fiction for her 2014 book Dash, about a girl separated from her dog when her family is forced to move to an internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII. Code Word Courage is another home-front story set during the war, this one about a girl, Billie, who acquires a dog thanks to her brother's service buddy, Denny, a recruit in the Marines' code talker communication program in the Pacific theater.

Roger Sutton: What gave you the idea for your Dogs of World War II series?

Kirby Larson: I wish I could tell you I had a little crystal ball and saw that this would make a wonderful series, but really what happened was the first book that I wrote, Dash, was the second book published. My editor, Lisa Sandell, had asked me if I had another idea because they would like to do that book first — the book that wasn't written.

RS: Oh, that's helpful!

KL: I know! But you never say no. You always say yes, I have an idea. The dog plays such a big role in Dash, I thought, okay, I wonder if there are other dog stories out there. As I did the research, I learned about the organization called Dogs for Defense, which recruited family pets — 25,000 of them — for the war effort. That became Duke. When those two books were out there, kids just ate them up. It became clear that there was an opportunity to do more. By that time I had four or five more ideas, and of those, my editor decided on the one that would become Liberty and on my idea for honoring the Navajo code talkers, which became Code Word Courage. I was so drawn to the code talker story because these were men who had once been punished for speaking the language that turned the tide in the Pacific. The Navajo young men had been so mistreated by our government, and yet they enlisted in droves—that was, to me, an amazing story of sacrifice. My books are not so much about war (though they are set during WWII) as they are about people who not only survive tough times, but find ways to thrive.

RS: Did you feel nervous about taking the topic of the code talkers on?

KL: Yes. But, like with all my books, I did a tremendous amount of research. I was able to find a Navajo code talker — Dr. Roy O. Hawthorne — who was ninety-one years old at the time we began our conversation, and he was very supportive and encouraging. He was helping me with it, but then his health became an issue, so I was connected with the son of another code talker. That man's name was Michael Smith, and he read the manuscript for me and helped me be sensitive and aware of what I was writing about outside my own culture. So yes, I was nervous, but my heart was so touched by this story. Chester Nez's book Code Talker is probably the best-known adult book, but there aren't many stories told from the perspectives of the code talkers themselves for younger readers. I felt that was important. I did a lot of research and had a lot of knowledge about the World War II era. With the help of Dr. Hawthorne, Michael, and some other resources, I did move ahead.

RS: World War II was big in pop culture when I was a kid, because that was my parents' generation. When we played war in the early 1960s, we all went back to World War II for our scenarios. We were fascinated with it. How do children today, from your experience, think about that war? Is it still a big deal to them?

KL: If you ask any elementary school librarian today, World War II is huge with young readers. There are so many facets to the story — librarians cannot keep books about that topic on the shelves.

RS: That was true when I was a librarian twenty-five years ago.

KL: During WWII, young people were actually involved in the war effort, so today's kids can really see what yesterday's kids were doing.

RS: And because it was a world war, I think that kids — regardless of their ethnic background, political affinity, religion, nationality — find different ways into it.

KL: That's very true.

RS: And dogs. When I started reading Code Word Courage, and we meet Bear for the first time, and he's quivering and injured, I'm like, oh, no, I can't take it. What is it about dogs in distress that immediately grips us?

KL: Dogs are very loyal and will stand by us, even if they have been treated badly. In stories, you can deal with a lot of issues through animals — issues that might be very difficult for a child reader to look at straight on, but seen through a dog's experience, somehow because it's not right in front of them, it's a little less frightening, an easier way into that story.

RS: Billie has this dog with her to help her through things, and as a reader you can feel like that dog is with you too. Is that relationship drawn from your own experience? Are you a dog person?

KL: I have a dog. I am owned by a dog. I'm a new dog person. Dogs are just so forgiving of us, and they're always there. Cats are a little more independent.

RS: My dog is very quiet and judgy.

KL: Judgy?

RS: Yeah. His name is Brownie, but we call him Brownstone, because there's just no affect. He is affectionate physically, but feed him, don't feed him, he stares at you the same way. He does love to run. He gets outside, and he's like, let me go in a big circle. That's when we know he's happy.

KL: Having a dog in your life changes you. That's one reason kids get hooked into this kind of story. Even if they aren't allowed to have a pet themselves, they feel that having such a creature in their home could do something different for them.

RS: And Bear certainly does something different in his moment of magical realism. Is that something you've tried before?

KL: Yes and no. I hint at it in the Audacity Jones series. She has a "slightly magical" cat, is how I describe Miniver. But actually the inspiration for that moment — not to have a spoiler in the interview — as part of my research, I read every single narrative written by a code talker that I could get my hands on. One man, looking back, told about a vision he'd had of a beautiful young woman wearing a necklace of shells, and when he woke up, he had a shell in his hand. It gave me such a chill. I wasn't going to appropriate that particular story, but I thought there was room in telling this story for something in that vein. That's where Bear's particular moment comes from.

RS: That moment is so grounded in realism that you could say it's a dream, if you wanted to. The plot doesn't turn on this magic, which could have gotten you in artistic trouble. If that was the only way to resolve the story in an otherwise realistic novel, I think you'd have a problem, but I don't think that's the way it works here.

KL: I'm going to hold onto that lovely compliment. Thank you, Roger.

RS: One of the great things about this book is that you throw so much at your heroine, but not in an overbearing way. She has a lot of things she's trying to deal with. She's got this father, she wants to know where he is. She periodically loses her dog, she wants to know where he is. She has an older brother off in the war in the Pacific. She has troubles at school with her best friend. It really bubbles along quite nicely. But when you come to the end of the book, you find some of her wishes granted and some of them not. How do you decide how much to give your main character, in terms of what she wants?

KL: That's a terrific question. If you read stories of kids on the home front from that time period, many of them had similar experiences to Billie, in terms of a loved one being overseas—think about how many families were impacted by that. This is on the tail end of the Depression. I was just at the Tenement Museum in New York and heard stories of men leaving their families because the stress of trying to provide for them when there weren't jobs available was too much. Think about being in that fifth- or sixth-grade age period, when kids are trying to figure out who they really are. As a girl, I remember the girls who wanted to be "girly" and others who didn't. Billie is impacted by larger events in the world, as well as smaller but equally powerful events that are part of growing up. I think kids are essentially very resilient and like to read about other children who are figuring things out, solving problems—and that might help them figure out things for their own lives.

RS: So this is the last of your dog books?

KL: I won't say it's the last of the dog books, but I've written six books about World War II, and I felt ready to move on to a different time period. And I was also ready to explore a slightly older character. So with the book I'm working on now, I'm back to a character who is more the age of Hattie in Hattie Big Sky. You can do more with an older character. I love writing middle grade, but I was ready to try something a little different.

RS: Good for you!

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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