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Graham Salisbury

Jeff Pfeffer

I hope what gives my books their sense of authenticity, other than the natural inculcation of the island’s physical and cultural landscape, which ends up in my sentences by osmosis, is my use of language. In Hawaii we often speak what we call pidgin English, a kind of tropical patois. For example, in standard English, one would say, “I am going home.” In Hawaiian pidgin, it would be, “I going home.” A simple thing, but over the course of a novel, it becomes a bigger thing, a part of a character’s being. It resonates. Syntax, too, creates that feeling of authenticity. It comes to me naturally, thank heaven. I don’t have to work at it because I simply hear it. If I had to fake, it I’d be laughed off the face of the earth. So, growing up in the islands was my gift. My writing is just me spewing it back.

As for the work itself, I’m big on certain issues having to do with boys and growing up. I guess this is so because of my own fractured upbringing. Much of who I am is self-imposed. I am my choices, and I have chosen to walk a certain path. Important to me are such qualities as honesty, friendship, honor, loyalty, integrity, courage, work, and passion. Life for anyone is a series of choices, and I hope that fact gets some play in my books. Luckily for me, I have made some good choices. It could have been different. I could have taken pride in the wrong moves, as many boys do. It’s cool to be tough. Beating the spit out of someone is good for the rep. It’s honorable to attack someone who “disrespects” you by, perhaps, accidentally bumping into you (“Hey! You like I broke your face or what?”). Right. I could have fallen into that mindset. But I didn’t, and I lay all credit to that on one man: James Monroe Taylor, my high school headmaster.

At the end of my sixth-grade year, my mom saw the light—she kicked my sorry okole out of the house and sent me to boarding school. It was in the middle of Parker Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii, and was the most precious gift she ever could have given me. I loved it. For the first time in my life, I had something I really, really, really needed: limits. It was like being at boot camp. Mr. Taylor, as part of his training, took us into his home in small groups and lectured us on the good qualities of life, all that stuff that is now so important to me: friendship, honor, etc. Of course, it was my duty at that time to laugh it off. That fat old man was out of his head. But his words stuck, and because they did, whenever I was presented with a sticky situation, I was able to fall back on that foundation and use it to make the better choice. My mother and Mr. Taylor—my hat’s off to both of them.

In my career as an author, I’ve spoken to a bazillion kids, mostly in grades six through eight. It’s been fun, truly. But I had an epiphany one day, and my newest creation, Calvin Coconut, came to be because of it.

I once spoke to a large group of fifth and sixth graders in a huge gymnasium, and was leaving the school, heading down the hall with the teacher who had invited me. “There’s a third-grade teacher here in our school who just loves your books,” she said as we walked, “and she asked me to ask you if you would be willing to just stop by her class and say hi to her kids. They know about you, too, because she read them one of your short stories.”

“Sure,” I said. I’d never spoken to third graders. It might be fun.

Boy, was it.

The third-grade teacher and every one of her students were literally glowing with excitement, having the author in their classroom.

They gathered around, sitting in a semicircle on the floor. I sat in a chair next to the teacher, who reached over and picked up a plate of cookies.

The kids all leaned forward, eyes bright as a thousand suns, rascally twinkles in them.

“Would you like to try one of the cookies we made in class?” she said.

I didn't, but I was on duty. “Uh, sure,” I said.

She pushed the plate closer.

The kids did a magnificent job of stuffing back their giggles as I reached out and picked up a yummy-looking but—I could tell—very fake cookie.

The teacher grinned, and I played along and pretended to bite into it. “Bleecck!” I spat, and the kids roared, as if it were the funniest thing they’d ever seen in their lives.

And that’s what got me: those beautiful, beautiful faces, all looking up at me in pure delight.

I ended up telling them a story of when I got stuck in a mass of mud, a story I love to tell, and they laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

I left that school a new man, and vowed then and there that someday I was going to expand my writing to include this group. Because I loved those faces and yearn to absorb that energy.

I also wanted to include this younger audience because teachers have told me many, many times that they just can’t get their boys interested in reading. I know of their plight. I was one of those boys. I read only one book on my own in all my elementary school years: Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

So Calvin Coconut and I have a job to do. Call Calvin Graham Salisbury light, because I’m bringing real-life situations and themes for discussion into every Calvin book, just like I do in my books for older readers. I won’t get heavy, I won’t get edgy, and I won’t be gratuitous. None of this is about me. It’s about every kid out there today who is just like the wandering fool I was. Besides the simple enjoyment of writing, my aim is simple: to build trust and turn boys into lifetime readers.

I finally became a reader at thirty. That’s how hard it is to get some boys to read. I’d like to help change that a bit. Because reading changes everything. Oh yeah.
 
 


Author Bookshelf

Blue Skin of the Sea

By: Graham Salisbury

Eleven interlinked stories tell the tale of a boy coming of age in Kailua-Kona, a Hawaiian fishing village. Sonny Mendoza is a little different from the rest of the men in his family. Salisbury explores characters like Aunty...

Calvin Coconut: Dog Heaven

By: Graham Salisbury

What do you want so badly that you can taste it—and can you persuade someone to give it to you? That's the subject of a fourth-grade writing assignment. Calvin wants a dog! He reads what he's written...

Calvin Coconut: Zoo Breath

By: Graham Salisbury
illustrated by: Jacqueline Rogers

Calvin's mom says his new dog Streak smells bad.  Especially her breath. Calvin's convinced that Streak's stink is a good one, but he's worried. If he doesn't solve Streak's problem soon, mom might...


Calvin Coconut: The Zippy Fix

By: Graham Salisbury

Calvin Coconut needs to fix things with Stella—and fast!

Stella from Texas is now officially a member of the Coconut household. As if getting a bossy babysitter isn’t bad enough for Calvin, Stella teases...

Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet

By: Graham Salisbury

A humorous chapter book about a fourth-grade boy, full of the fun of growing up in Hawaii.
 
Calvin Coconut lives near the beach in Kailua, Hawaii, with his mom and his little sister. All his friends live there,...

Eyes of the Emperor

By: Graham Salisbury

Eddy Okubo lies about his age and joins the army in his hometown of Honolulu only weeks before the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Suddenly Americans see him as the enemy—even the U.S. Army doubts the loyalty...


House of the Red Fish

By: Graham Salisbury

1943, one year after the end of Under the Blood-Red Sun, Tomi’s Papa and Grandpa are still under arrest, and the paradise of Hawaii now lives in fear—waiting for another attack, while trying...

Island Boyz

By: Graham Salisbury

In this rich collection, Salisbury’s love for Hawaii and its encircling sea shines through every story. Readers will share the rush a boy feels when he leaps off a cliff into a ravine or feasts his eyes on a...

Lord of the Deep

By: Graham Salisbury

Fishing. This is it, the big time. Mikey's 13, a deckhand working on a charter boat in Hawaii. Working for the best skipper anywhere, his stepdad, Bill. Before Bill came along, it was just Mikey and his mom. Now they're...


Night of the Howling Dogs

By: Graham Salisbury

DYLAN'S SCOUT TROOP goes camping in Halape, a remote spot below the volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. The only thing wrong with the weekend on a beautiful, peaceful beach is Louie, a tough older boy. Louie and Dylan just...

Under the Blood-Red Sun

By: Graham Salisbury

Tomi was born in Hawaii. His grandfather and parents were born in Japan, and came to America to escape poverty.

World War II seems far away from Tomi and his friends, who are too busy playing ball on their...

Calvin Coconut: Hero of Hawaii

By: Graham Salisbury

Hawaii boy Calvin Coconut has come up with the best idea ever for his sister Darci's birthday party. But a huge tropical storm hits the islands and threatens everything. It rains and rains. And rains.

The river...


Calvin Coconut: Kung Fooey

By: Graham Salisbury
illustrated by: Jacqueline Rogers

Calvin Coconut's fourth-grade class meets Benni Obi, a weird and likable new kid. Benny brags about knowing kung fu, eats worms, crickets, and chocolate-covered scorpions, and says all the wrong things to bully...

Calvin Coconut: Man Trip

By: Graham Salisbury

Calvin and his mom's boyfriend, Ledward, are good friends. When Ledward wins plane tickets, he invites Calvin to fly to Hawaii, the Big Island, for a day, and go deep-sea fishing. Wow! Calvin's never been on a...

Calvin Coconut: Rocket Ride

By: Graham Salisbury
illustrated by: Jacqueline Rogers

Calvin's dad is a famous pop singer, and he's going to be in a concert on the island! Everyone wants to go. Dad gave Calvin's mom 10 tickets, and Calvin has to decide who gets the last ticket: teacher's...


Hunt for the Bamboo Rat

By: Graham Salisbury

Based on a true story, this World War II novel by Scott O’Dell Award winner Graham Salisbury tells how Zenji, 17, is sent from Hawaii to the Philippines to spy on the Japanese.
   Zenji Watanabe graduates from high school in...

Calvin Coconut #9: Extra Famous

By: Graham Salisbury

There are zombies at Kailua beach!! Well, kind of. Fourth-grader Calvin Coconut and his friends have been recruited by Benny Obi (the boy from Kung Fooey who liked to tell crazy stories and ate...