Interview with writer Cynthia Kadohata
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Chicago-born and of Japanese descent, author Cynthia Kadohata's first book for young adults Kira-Kira was awarded the 2005 Newbery Medal. It also won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (2004-2005) and was chosen as a Kiryama Prize Notable Book and an ALA Notable Children's Book, to name but two of the many book-lists it has appeared on... Since then, she has gone on to write the much-acclaimed Weedflower and Cracker!: The Best Dog in Vietnam , published earlier this year. She lives in California with her son and her dog.
Your latest book Cracker! focuses on the extremely strong bond between a dog and his handler during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War itself is a sensitive subject and you appear to have avoided being caught up in that by concentrating on the relationships between Cracker and the two human protagonists - Rick, her handler and Willi, the boy who first rescues the dog and then has to give her up. Was this deliberate?
I have always wanted to write a book about dogs. But my editor didn't like my original idea (a story about a dog living on another planet!), so when I found out that there were dogs in the Vietnam War, I e-mailed her about it and she bought the project on the basis of that e-mail. I did try to keep most of the politics out because I wanted the story to be about the men and dogs in the field, not about what was happening at home in America.
What research did you do and what did you have to do with that research to turn it into the intense story you have created?
I read many stories about war dogs, studied terrain maps of Vietnam as it was during the war, and interviewed several former dog handlers, two Special Forces soldiers, a nurse and a doctor who served in Vietnam, and a woman who gave up her dog to send to Vietnam. Since I already knew what my story was going to be (from my outline) I interviewed the soldiers with my needs in mind. For example, sometimes I would have a very specific question, like, "When you rubbed bug juice on the leeches, did you really rub or did you just touch your finger on the leech?"
What readership did you have in mind when you were writing the book? What reactions have you heard from young people when you visit schools - especially as I understand you have been accompanied by army personnel and their dogs on some of these visits?
Oh, it was so much fun to do visits with former dog handlers and a dog. The kids LOVED the dogs. All a dog has to do is stand up and the kids go crazy. They yelled out to the dog, "Cracker! Cracker!" The readership I had in mind was girls and boys in fifth- grade and up, and also whatever adults might find the subject matter interesting. Apropos of nothing, one of the kids asked me whether I had a war dog during the Civil War!
Your previous two books for young readers draw on your own experiences and background. How different did you find it, writing about Cracker?
I think of Cracker! as drawing on my background also my background as a big dog lover! Actually, I did a ton of research for my second book, Weedflower, because although my father was interned in the Poston camp during the Second World War,he didn't talk much about it to me. So I had to interview many people, probably more than I interviewed for Cracker!
As you say, you wrote Weedflower out of your father's experience of spending part of the Second World War in the Poston Camp, one of the several Internment Camps in the United States. Were you aware of this as you were growing up and did you always know you would write about it?
I think the internment made my father want to keep a low profile. He became more introverted than he would have been. He doesn't like to talk about the camps at all. I learned about them when I was in fourth grade, but I didn't really understand the implications until college. I don't think I would say I always knew I would write about it, but I did always WANT to write about it at some point.
The book portrays many fully-rounded characters of all ages, each with their own distinctive voice. What voices did you listen to in your preparation of the book?
I talked to several former internees and to two Native American elders while writing the book. I also talked to several former flower farmers. Some of the people I interviewed had to be coaxed a bit to open up. I tried to be gentle but firm during the interview process.
We learn very early on in your first book Kira-Kira that kira-kira means glittering, shiny. And Katie, the main character who is five at the beginning of the story, learns from her older sister Lynn to find the kira-kira essence in every situation, which becomes harder for her as the story unfolds. Were you brought up with this philosophy?
It was absolutely a lesson I had to learn. I feel it's a lesson I'm learning every day, even now.
How much of your own cultural heritage as an American with Japanese roots do you draw on when you are writing?
Some of my books draw very heavily on details from my real life, and others (like Cracker!) don't use any details from my real life at all. I feel the details from my real life are drawn from my heritage. The situation we found ourselves in when I was a child was specific to Japanese Americans. For instance, my father was a chicken sexer, in other words he was trained to distinguish the sex of chicken hatchlings - a profession that I believe was very close to 100% Japanese.
You recently adopted your beautiful son from Kazakhstan (I've seen his photo on your website!) - what prompted you to opt for Kazakhstan? From what you've said elsewhere, he sounds like a bundle of energy - does he like to sit down long enough to hear a story?
Kazakhstan was one of the countries where women in their forties and divorced could adopt from. Sammy is an incredible bundle of energy. Sometimes he likes to run around and around the house just doing nothing else besides workingg off steam. His favourite books so far have been by P.D. Eastman.
He will have quite a cultural heritage. How important do you think it is that he grow up aware of this? Are there instances from your own childhood which will influence how you make this a part of his life?
In my own childhood, I think my parents were reluctant to raise their children with many Japanese traditions. It was almost something they were embarrassed about, and I think this was because of the racism they faced. I want Sammy to be proud of his heritage and I hope to take him to Kazakhstan one day to see his native country.
You yourself have an interesting mixture of roots. What differences can you see in the expression of this between when you were a child and the world your son is growing up in?
Today people seem much more open and proud of their roots. I will tell Sammy as soon as he can understand that I adopted him because I wanted to raise a child so badly, and he was the beautiful boy I wanted to raise. I have found a couple of children's books about Kazakhstan, and when he is old enough to understand I will read the books with him.
Do you do a lot of school visits? What message do you try and get across to young people?
I have done a fair number of school visits. I want kids to feel that reading is a wondrous thing that can change your life. Reading changed my life. It turned me into a writer.
* Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor
Posted May 2007
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