‘Code Word Courage’ by Kirby Larson: Touching Middle Grade Fiction about a Girl, a Dog, and a Soldier — All of Them Heroes

code talker

Kirby Larson creates another touching historical fiction story with an amazing dog in “Code Word Courage,” a novel that is set during WWII, and features not just the love of a lonely girl for her dog but also the fabulous, and long- hidden, story of the Navajo Code Talkers.

It begins, as do many dog stories, with an abandoned dog. Animal lovers will flinch at the cruel abandoning of Bear, who is certainly a dog hero in this story. Fifth grader Billie’s big brother Leo and Denny, his Navajo friend, are on leave from boot camp and visiting Leo’s home when they come across the injured dog. Denny refuses to leave the dog and brings him to Billie’s house.

Doff, the great-aunt with whom they live, doesn’t want a dog but reluctantly agrees to keep Bear until he’s well. When he chases a raccoon away from her prized chickens, she lets him stay. Billie, who had been having problems at school with a best friend who left her for other girls, loves having someone to talk to and love. She’s worried about Leo and Denny, worried about her lack of friends, and angry that her neighbor and friend Tito is being mistreated at school because he’s Mexican.

Larson seamlessly weaves in many historical injustices, including the fact that Native American children were taken from their families and punished for speaking their language. The story is told in alternating third person narratives from Billie and Denny’s points of view. A small bit is told from Bear’s point of view. Denny shares the memories that make him happy — of being with his family — and the memories that make him sad — of having his mouth filled with soap for speaking in his native tongue. He’s conflicted on whether he’s a Marine or a Diné, Navajo. Through Denny’s narrative, Larson teaches the readers about the Navajo Code Talkers and what they did for our country.

The love those main characters feel for Bear resonates throughout the book, and Larson is an expert at bringing out the strong emotions people feel for their dogs. Bear is supremely deserving of such love and twice in the story saves people when they are lost — once literally and then magically.

Larson’s writing in this story as well as in her other novels, “Liberty,” “Duke,” and “Dash,” all celebrate the bonds between people and dogs, but they also celebrate the fact that we are all the same under our skin, and our heritage, our language, and the color of our skin don’t mean a thing when it comes to being an up-stander and doing the right thing.

This book would be a wonderful read aloud for students from fourth grade through middle school, and it’s a perfect choice for any adventure-lovers or, obviously, animal lovers.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Scholastic Books, the publisher, for review purposes.

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