Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac is the story of a Navajo boy who serves in the Marine Corps during World War II, sending messages in an unbreakable code based on his native language.
The narrator and protagonist, Ned Begay, is fictional, but the main events in the book really happened. Blaine and I both enjoyed learning more about this little-known piece of history.
The book is presented as a story told by Ned as an old man: “Grandchildren, you asked me about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of metal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak for many winters. It is the true story of how Navajo Marines helped America win a great war.”
He then goes back to his childhood. He left home at age six to attend a state-run boarding school where he was forced to cut his hair and required to speak only English. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was fourteen years old and too young to fight, but two years later, he joined the Marines. After boot camp, he was sent to code school to learn a code based on the Navajo language. He and his fellow Navajo code talkers played a key role in many battles in the Pacific theater, including on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. After the war, he returned home and became a teacher, but for many years, he was not allowed to tell anyone about his work as a code talker.
Bruchac says in the Author’s Note that the book “can be read as a parable about the importance of respecting other languages and cultures.” Some of the most interesting parts of the book are its explorations of the differences between Navajo, white American, and Japanese cultures.
The Rock and the River by Kekla Magoon is a coming-of-age story set in Chicago in 1968. Thirteen-year-old Sam Childs is caught in the middle. His father is a civil rights leader and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His older brother is a member of the Black Panthers.
“You can’t be the rock and the river,” his brother tells him.
Blaine and I both enjoyed this book. It raises complex issues for discussion—both societal (race, class, police violence) and personal (family dynamics, relationships, growing up). And like the best historical fiction, it teaches the reader a lot about the time period in the context of a compelling story.
What could be more idyllic than curling up on a late summer evening with an adventure story set in a dystopian future?
Blaine and I recently finished Legend, the first book in Marie Lu’s dystopian trilogy. It’s set in a future Los Angeles, part of the war-torn Republic. It’s told from the viewpoint of two fifteen-year-olds from different sides of the tracks: June, a top student at an elite military academy, and Day, a wanted criminal hiding out in the slums. When June’s older brother is murdered, Day is the prime suspect and June goes undercover to track him down.
Blaine and I both enjoyed the book. Occasionally we quibbled with some of the amazing leaps (deductive and otherwise) made by the characters. And Blaine, in particular, noted the characters’ overuse of the word “wound.” Although this book has not replaced The Hunger Games as our favorite dystopian novel, we’re eager to read the next two books in the series.
So why are we drawn to these books? Several years ago, in “The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction,” the New York Times asked authors and other experts why post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular. I’m inclined to agree with Maggie Stiefvater, author of Shiver, that dystopian novels are more an escapist pleasure than an exploration of real fears about the future. Stiefvater suggests that in a world of complex, nuanced choices, “the absolute black and white choices in dark young adult novels are incredibly satisfying for readers.”
We’d love to hear your recommendations. What is your favorite dystopian young adult novel?