If you asked me who’s writing the very best Hawai’i-related children’s fiction these days, the answer would be very simple: Graham Salisbury.
For almost two decades, I’ve read his short stories and middle grade novels with awe and admiration, grateful that someone has been able to accurately capture the soul, spirit, and authentic flavor of the Islands. I’ve read other books set in Hawai’i — there are palm trees, beaches, and volcanoes galore, but when it comes to portraying characters who feel so believably local that I’m sure I must have known them at some point in my life, Salisbury’s the man.
Part of his magic is about the language — authentic dialogue created through the use of syntax approximating Hawaiian pidgin. This makes it real and familiar for Hawaiian readers, and accessible for mainlanders. Moreover, this haole is so in tune with his Hawaiian roots, that he’s even able to seamlessly slip into the skin of another ethnicity, such as the Japanese American main character, Tomi Nakaji, in Under the Blood Red Sun (winner of the 1994 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction).
This is not to say that his stories appeal mostly to readers familiar with or from Hawai’i. Quite the contrary: Salisbury’s recurring universal themes of friendship, honor, courage, and loyalty resonate with a wide range of young readers who are navigating the difficult and often painful journey of adolescence.
Of special interest is Salisbury’s exploration of the father-son relationship (Lord of the Deep), which stems from his own lack of a strong father figure while he was growing up on O’ahu and the Big Island. This, along with his insightful and respectful examination of the inner life of adolescent boys (Blue Skin of the Sea), make his books quite unique, even though they are enjoyed equally by both sexes.
I just finished Graham’s most recent book, Night of the Howling Dogs (Random House, 2007), which is based on the true story of a Hilo boy scout troop caught in a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and tsunami on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The story is narrated by Dylan, an eighth grader who is excited about hiking down to a remote beach at the base of Kilauea volcano with his best friend, Casey, six other scouts, and two adult leaders.
The dramatic tension is established early on, with Dylan’s unease at having one of the newer scouts, Louie, on the trip. Louie, a hardened 15-year-old, had threatened Dylan years before, and still carries a big chip on his shoulder.
The hike down to the beach is difficult and challenging, and once there, Dylan first hears, then sees, two mysterious howling dogs up on the cliff. He is told that according to Hawaiian superstition, they are a sure sign something is going to happen. In the dark of night, the boys are awakened by a strong earthquake, boulders tumbling down the cliff, and then a tsunami which engulfs everything. In the fast-paced, highly suspenseful events that follow, Dylan finds himself teamed up with Louie to help rescue the others. They must depend on their wits, and establish a degree of mutual trust and respect as they face dangers they could never have imagined.
Salisbury’s vivid, sensual descriptions are brilliant; nature is, after all, the primary antagonist in this survival adventure. The reader is thrust directly into the fray, witness to Dylan’s visceral reactions as each new challenge presents itself. How does one deal with bloody feet walking on sharp, pointed lava? What about a swarm of ravenous wasps desperate to get at the water in your eyes? Or nearly drowning in a raging wall of water, and having your body slashed by debris? Along with the many survival tips woven into the narrative, are fascinating bits of Hawaiian superstition, legends and spooky campfire tales, which foreshadow the action and crystallize the setting.
It is not an adventure anyone would want to experience in real life, but Salisbury has taken the reader quite close to the edge. An endnote describes actual events occurring on November 29, 1975, with the chilling revelation that Salisbury’s own cousin, Tim Twigg-Smith, was one of the scouts who survived that fateful day. Graham convinced Tim to return to the Halape camp site just five years later, so he could see what had always been a peaceful, pristine area for himself. After encountering stinging ants, flying roaches, and blinding heat, he was able to imagine the events that eventually turned into this marvelous book.
Night of the Howling Dogs has earned many well deserved accolades, including the 2008 Bank Street College of Education Book of the Year, Junior Library Guild Premier Selection Award, NYPL 100 Best Books for Reading and Sharing, and the 2007 NAPPA Gold Award. And the ultimate proof of its worth? I hate camping, but I loved this book! 😀
Read an excerpt from Night of the Howling Dogs here.
The YaYaYa’s interview Graham here.
For more information about the 1975 earthquake/tsunami, including a photo of the real campers, click here.
Blue Skin of the Sea
Under the Blood Red Sun
Lord of the Deep
Eyes of the Emperor
House of the Red Fish
Night of the Howling Dogs
Check out Graham’s website for teacher guides, more book excerpts, and the skinny on his accomplishments as a rock musician in the 60’s!