I had no idea that Duke would launch a series. It turns out if you put a dog in a book, kids will gobble it up, even [supposedly hard to sell] historical fiction! In a few short days, Code Word Courage (Scholastic), the fourth and final book of the Dogs of WWII series, will be published.
I was familiar with the story of the Navajo Code Talkers but had much to learn about the life experiences of young Navajo men in the 1940s. They would have been raised on stories of The Long Walk of 1864 – a forced relocation of the Navajo from their homeland, during which 200 people died in 18 days. They would have seen their families’ sheep and goat flocks destroyed by the US government in the 1930s and they would likely have been sent to boarding schools where they got their mouths washed out with soap for speaking their own language.
After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, like others their age, Navajo young men enlisted in droves. And someone got the idea to create a code based on the Navajo language, drawing from those enlistees to create a top-secret communications school. Thirty men created a code, which others improved upon. A code the enemy never could decipher.
The Code Talkers’ reward for their heroism and selflessness? Being discharged without promised promotions and told not to tell about their actions. And they didn’t.
Their story tugged powerfully at my heart. And, thanks to a connection with Code Talker Dr. Roy O. Hawthorne, my own tribute to these men began to take shape. Dr. Hawthorne’s stories, along with my research into the experiences of other Code Talkers, led to the creation of 18- year-old Marine Denny Begay.
But middle grade readers require a character their own age to identify with. So Billie Packer came to life. Eleven years old, she lives on her great-aunt Doff ‘s ranch, overwhelmed by loss. Her father left during the Great Depression and her best friend has recently deserted her. And now her beloved big brother, Leo, has been drafted. Billie is beyond ticked off when Leo comes home for his last leave before shipping out with a fellow Marine—Denny Begay — in tow. During the trip to the ranch, Denny finds a stray dog in need of a home. And that big goofy dog named Bear ends up helping both Billie and Denny discover things they didn’t even know they were looking for.
My research and imagination helped me get into the hearts and minds of two very different people (plus a dog!), profoundly impacted not only by a war, but by their questions about what it means to be true to oneself.
It was my great honor to write Code Word Courage which is dedicated to the 400 plus Navajo Code Talkers whose actions were so grand and brave and selfless, it’s still hard for me to fathom.
For information and activities you can do with your students, please check out these resources:
From the National Museum of the American Indian
From the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, a video interview with Dr. Hawthorne
From the official Navajo Code Talkers website
Also, I would love to giveaway a signed copy of Code Word Courage! Please click this link to enter!
I would love to hear from you and your students after reading this book!
Bio: Kirby Larson is the acclaimed author of the 2007 Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky, and its sequel, Hattie Ever After. In addition to the Dogs of WWII series– which includes Duke, Dash (Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Prize), and Liberty, — she has written The Friendship Doll, and The Fences Between Us. Her newest series includes Audacity Jones to the Rescue and Audacity Jones Steals the Show (nominated for a 2018 Edgar award).
With good friend Mary Nethery, Kirby has written the award-winning Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival (illustrated by Jean Cassels) and the New York Times bestseller, Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle.