Cynthia Kadohata's last two books—2005 Newbery Award-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. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Horn Book Guide Reviews 2007 Fall
German shepherd Cracker trains with Rick, who's going to Vietnam. Cracker learns to sniff out tripwires, and Rick learns to trust his sometimes rebellious dog. After some simplistic passages from Cracker's point of view, Kadohata digs into Rick's Vietnam experience. Without asking too much of her middle-grade readers, Kadohata creates tension and pathos around the bonds between humans and dogs in wartime. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Guide Reviews.
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 2007 #2
Cracker is a German shepherd living with her boy, Willie, until Willie has to move and Cracker gets a new job-training with Rick, who's going to Vietnam. Cracker learns to sniff out tripwires and hidden ambushes, and Rick learns to trust his sometimes rebellious dog, slowly gaining her undying devotion. After the two ship out to Vietnam, Rick relates the alternating boredom and terror of life in a war zone, his and Cracker's camaraderie with their squad mates, and their exciting stint working with Special Forces. After some early simplistic passages from the dog's point of view, Kadohata digs into the dog handlers' Vietnam experience with rock-solid details and a canny understanding of the emotions soldiers deal with. Without asking too much of her middle-school readers, Kadohata creates tension and pathos around the bonds between humans and dogs in wartime, spurring on the narrative with uncertainty about Cracker's fate. Those without much familiarity with the Vietnam War will find an easy intro via Rick and Cracker in this emotionally resonant tale. Copyright 2007 Horn Book Magazine Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2006 December #2
"But she and Rick had . . . something bigger. She wasn't sure what it was. All she knew was that when he came to her in the morning, she had no choice but to twirl around and chase her tail before sitting down in front of him." Cracker is a German shepherd, owned by the US Army, who sniffs out booby traps in Vietnam with her handler, Rick. Kadohata has deftly intertwined a classic dog story with that of a soldier's by writing from both points of view, remarkably well, though her talents with realistic voice and immediacy of setting that garnered her the Newbery Medal are put to the test here. Rick's colloquialisms are essential to his character, but sometimes fall flat on the page: "The more Rick trained, the more he started to feel that Cracker was kind of like reading his mind or something." The narrative is slow to engage, starting with Cracker's previous owner, and plenty of saccharine. There's not much information on the war, nor do Rick's internal dilemmas reach beyond the surface. Despite thin spots, the story succeeds on the strength of its characters, their struggles and their relationship, reaching a readership that doesn't get enough quality writing in this genre. (Fiction. 9-13) Copyright Kirkus 2006 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2007 January #3
The author of Weedflower and Kira-Kira takes readers back to the Vietnam War era in this meticulously researched story about a special friendship that develops between an American soldier and a dog. When 17-year-old Rick Hanski enlists in the army, he intends to "whip the world," but he soon finds out that he can't do it alone. As a dog handler, he relies on Cracker, a sharp-minded German shepherd to protect him from danger and provide him with companionship during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The author builds tension when Rick and Cracker are sent on a mission to rescue two POWs, and again when they are taken by surprise in an ambush attack. Alternating human and canine points of view, Kadohata shows how Rick and Cracker come to trust and depend on each other during times of crisis. Rick's thoughts encapsulate the confusion and growing paranoia of soldiers living in a land where friends and foes are hardly distinguishable. Cracker's perspective represents more basic emotions, though some readers may be troubled by occasional anthropomorphization (e.g., "Cracker didn't think the dog was crazy. He was just protecting his handler. She kind of respected him"). Although the author remains politically neutral in telling her tale, she does acknowledge war protesters' attitudes and deftly conveys the way Rick's own feelings about the war change over time. Offering adventure mixed with stark realism, this novel will leave a lasting impression on readers. Ages 10-up. (Feb.)[Page 52]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.