Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey – Retro Review By Kim Campbell

Like many Nerdy Book Club members, I regularly shop at thrift stores for books for my students. I’m always hoping to spot one of my favorites on the shelves: Kavik the Wolf Dog by Walt Morey. Finding a copy of this book can wipe away my feelings of guilt about shopping when instead I should be: grading, cleaning, family-timing. Yes, it’s that good.

My journey collecting Kaviks started about five years ago, after my first year of teaching. I was looking online for recommendations for fourth graders and a thoughtful educator suggested Kavik. I have used the novel ever since for adventure and survival book clubs, and I routinely loan it to colleagues. It even transitioned well to fifth grade when I made the switch several years ago.

Although published in 1968, Kavik has many elements that make it a good middle grade read for today:

  • a relationship between a young teen and a dog

  • an adventure full of obstacles

  • a classic, but not too dated feel

  • a decent vocabulary (With gems like “absurdity” and “palatial,” I often use it with more advanced readers, but it is not out of reach for others.)

  • the surprise factor: few, if any, students have heard of it

  • a manageable size (especially for a book club): 192 pages

The author, Mr. Morey, also wrote Gentle Ben. I’ve always wanted to read that famous book, but haven’t, perhaps because I feel I know the author well through Kavik. “This book is dedicated to all young people from six to sixty who have known the love of an animal,” explains Morey in the opening pages. Kavik takes place in one of Morey’s favorite settings – Alaska – and in the Pacific Northwest, where he lived. I wish I had discovered Kavik when I was younger and falling for novels about the natural world, such as Jack London’s White Fang. Morey’s writing easily fits alongside London’s – and Jean Craighead George’s and Gary Paulsen’s. His appreciation for nature is obvious in his description of everything from Kavik’s build to thawing snowpack. Aiding the imagery is a handful of drawings by well-known illustrator Peter Parnall.

In the book, the boy and the dog first meet after a small plane carrying a prize sled dog goes missing. Andy stumbles upon the crash and decides to put the barely surviving animal out of its misery: “He was about to pull the trigger when the dog’s eyes opened and looked at the boy,” Morey writes. “The blue eyes of the boy and yellow ones of the dog studied each other. His eyes held the boy’s with as direct a gaze as Andy had ever known. Scarcely realizing what he was doing, Andy tilted the rifle muzzle away and eased back the bolt.”

Andy and Kavik form a strong bond, but problems arise when the dog’s wealthy owner, who lives out of state, wants him returned. Some of the questions my students wrote last year on their book club anchor charts offer a few hints (as does the cover) about how the rest of the story unfolds:

Will Andy get Kavik back?

Will Kavik escape back into the wild?

Will Kavik stay with the female wolf?

Will Mr. Hunter find Kavik or will Kavik find Andy?

Is there going to be a second book?

Kavik builds to a satisfying conclusion, one that doesn’t require too many tissues. It is a book for dog lovers, nature lovers, and good-story lovers. If you’ve read Kavik or are using it in your classroom or library, I’d love to hear about your experiences. If not, what’s your favorite thrift-store find?

Kim Campbell is a fifth grade teacher in Colorado. She regularly draws inspiration from folks in the Nerdy Book Club and the National Writing Project, and from scores of educators and authors on Twitter. She’s in the process of launching a blog, and can be found on Twitter @kacwrites.