Night of the Howling Dogs was nominated for the Oregon Book Award's young adult category. The story, based on a real-life earthquake and tsunami that Graham Salisbury's cousin's scout troop survived in 1975, seemed like the type of adventure that would appeal to my boys. We read it aloud, but the short chapters and high action would also appeal to 9-15 year old boys reading to themselves. My boys (8 and 12-in-4-days) were enthusiastic, asking for chapter after chapter, especially in the second half. Here are our musings on the book two days after finishing it:
On Pacing and character development:
Ben (almost-12): I felt like it took up half the book to get everything started, then he did the exciting part and before you knew it, the book was over. I wish there would've been more of them trying to survive and finding help.
Ali: So, too much time introducing the characters and their relationships to each other?
Evan (8): And about Louie, how Dylan [the main character] doesn't like Louie.
Ali: Do you think the stuff that had happened between Louie and Dylan was important to the rest of the story?
Evan: Yeah, because it made Dylan not like Louie as much. And then Louie got friendlier.
Ali: Did you like Louie?
Evan: Later on I did.
Ben: I was frustrated with him for being not very nice. It was like the author was trying to make us not like him.
Ali: Do you think it made the second half more interesting, because Salisbury set up that tension between them?
Evan: Yes, because then Louie's helping him.
Ali: But you still felt like he spent too much time on that.
(I agree with them. Louie's a fascinating character—a slightly older native Hawaiian boy who isn't part of the scout troop. The troop leader included him in hopes of offering him something positive to counteract a rough life. I loved the tension between him and Dylan and how it affected both of their character arcs, but it was overplayed in the first half—to the point that it felt like, "hmmm, better make Louie do one more mean thing to pass the time before the earthquake hits").
On the Hawaiian Setting:
Evan: In the first part it was kind of confusing. I couldn't really picture where they were. First, I was picturing them in a field of lava rock, then all of a sudden they're in this place below this huge cliff where there's a swimming hole and an ocean and an island and a coconut grove. I mean, that's not going to be in the middle of lava rocks.
Ali: So the setting changed as they were hiking, I think, and it was a little hard to keep up?
Evan: Yeah. And then when they were walking on the pahoehoe [smooth lava], I pictured it in a forest, and all of a sudden they found themselves in this place where they could fall into a canyon on each side, and then when they're past the a'a [rough lava], they had to get through this place that could collapse and they could see a helicopter—but if you're in a forest you couldn't see a helicopter.
Ali: I wonder why you pictured a forest? He kept describing the sun beating down on them—I pictured it really desolate and hot, like a desert but with rocks.
Ben: Me too, I don't think it would be a forest.
Ali: So maybe what it was is that the setting was really unfamiliar to you, because you've never been to Hawaii, so you imagined it differently from what the author meant.
Ali: I remember you had some trouble picturing some of the characters, too, the Hawaiian boys.
Evan: Okay, you know, Louie? I'm picturing that same Hawaiian skin [like a picture of a Hawaiian teen we'd found on the internet], except a black t-shirt, a skull and shark tooth (necklace) and he's wearing green pants and his hair, I'm not picturing it like long like that, I'm picturing it like kind of messy, like sticking out in different places.
Ali: But since we don't know any Hawaiian people and you haven't seen any on TV and movies, it was a challenge.
Evan: Yeah. Mike [another of the boy scouts, also native Hawaiian], I don't really want to picture Mike, because it's so hard.
Ali: So, would you want to read another book that took place in Hawaii, or not?
(I loved the setting. The boys really had to stretch themselves, which I thought was great. We had to do some outside research to help us grasp the setting and characters, but what better way to learn?)
On Graham Salisbury
Ali: Would you read another book by this author?
Evan: Maybe, if it was a sequel.
Ben: Yeah, there should be a sequel.
Evan: I like books that are more stories and not history. This had some history because you learned about Hawaii and how it's different from where we live, but it was just enough. (Translation: Can we please stop reading Johnny Tremain and read more stuff like Night of the Howling Dogs?)
I would definitely read another of Salisbury's novels with them. I believe they all take place in Hawaii, where Salisbury was raised--some are contemporary and others take place during the 1940s, and there are even teachers' guides for three of them on his website.
The soundtrack: We couldn't resist adding Who Let the Dogs Out, by the Baja Men. With the tropical setting and those pesky, mysterious dogs, this one just seemed to fit.