Heart of a Samurai

23 09 2012

In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy helped open the borders of Japan to the rest of the world.  Before then Japan was a “closed country,” refusing to trade or communicate with any foreign lands.  They were especially concerned with the Western nations of Europe and North America, fearing that the people of those countries were devils out to corrupt them and destroy their society and traditions.

The Newbery Honor book, Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus takes place about fifteen years before Perry’s treaties with Japan that opened the country to the rest of the world.

In the book, Manjiro is a fourteen-year-old boy on a Japanese fishing boat.  Manjiro has always dreamed of growing up to be a samurai, but since he’s from a poor, lower class family, he never will be.   When the boat is destroyed in a storm, Manjiro and the other four fishermen are forced to swim to an unknown island where they attempt to live on sea birds and their eggs.  Eventually they are rescued by an American whaling ship.  Not only will Manjiro never be a samurai, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever see his homeland again.

The Japanese fishermen are reluctant to speak with the American sailors, because if they ever return home, their countrymen will imprison them, maybe even kill them – fearing that they were corrupted by too much contact with foreigners.  Manjiro realizes this and decides that he will probably never be allowed to return home, so, going against the warnings of the other fishermen, Manjiro begins learning English and how to work on the whaling ship.

The story tells the true story of Manjiro’s life over the next decade or so – his adventures on the whaler, his experiences living in New England, his attempts to find riches in San Francisco during the gold rush, and eventually his return to Japan – where he’s imprisoned as an outsider.  Manjiro may not be a true warrior, but throughout all of his adventures, he proves that he does have the heart of a samurai.

Manjiro’s story isn’t a well-known one, but without his efforts and experiences, Commodore Perry never would have been successful in his efforts to open trade lines with Japan.

Margi Preus tells this exciting adventure with quick chapters filled with illustrations (many drawn by Manjiro himself).  Even though this book was published in 2011, it feels like you’re reading a classic adventure story from 100 years ago – and that’s a good thing.  This one is destined to be a classic.

This school year I’ve challenged my students to read 40 books.  I took that challenge myself.   Heart of a Samurai is book #6 for me.  

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy

20 09 2012

The sixth book of the Narnia series is very different from the first five.  In every other book there’s at least one character who is transported to Narnia (or the surrounding fantasy kingdoms) from our Earthly world.  They each became a character for readers to relate to, suddenly transported to a foreign land, unaware of the ways things work and what’s good and what’s evil.  In this book, the main character is a young boy named Shasta, originally from Narnia, but living in another land called Calormen as a slave.

Because of this slight difference, The Horse and His Boy is actually one of the best of the Narnia books.  The story behind the book is even more interesting though.  

Books three, four, and five of the series are known as the Caspian trilogy, because all three books focus on the Prince (later King) of Narnia – Caspian.  While writing those three books, C.S. Lewis took a break and wrote The Horse and His Boy.  So, if you number the books in the order they were written, this one is fourth.  However, since Lewis didn’t want this story to come out in the middle of the Caspian books, he kept it on his desk and didn’t publish it until fifth.  But, since he’d already written it, he gave a little sneaky shout-out to Shasta and the horse Bree in Book Four – The Silver Chair.  

The Silver Chair takes place thousands of years after The Horse and His Boy, but some of the characters in The Silver Chair make mention of a famous legend in Narnia of Shasta and Bree.  Lewis was able to make this reference to a piece of fake Narnian history, because he’d already written the story.

Much like J.R.R. Tolkien did with his Lord of the Rings world – MiddleEarth – Lewis gave Narnia it’s own history, mythology, and cultures to make it more real to readers.

I thought this little story was the best part of the book.  As a whole, it’s a fun adventure story, but not great by any means.  I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they were trying to read the whole Narnia series.  I did like that after three books that took place several thousand years after the original story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), this one went back to the time period of the first book.  Also, after a few books without them, it was fun to catch the little references to Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy – the heroes of book one and book two.  

So far, I’m giving this series 3 out of 5 stars.  This book gets 3 1/2 stars.  

Each year I challenge my students to read 40 books over the course of the school year.  I believe I can’t ask the kids to do something I’m not willing to do myself, I take the challenge to.  In fact, this year I’ve challenged myself to read 60 books.  The Horse and His Boy was the 5th book I’ve read this school year.  


17 09 2012

I seem to be on a real big graphic novel kick lately.  I really enjoyed Smile by Raina Telgemeier, the Babymouse series has quickly become one of my favorites, My Friend Dahmer was one of the most memorable books I’ve read this yearand Bone has shot to the top of my all-time favorites list.




Not to be forgotten is the Amulet series.  These books, by Japanese-American author Kazu Kibuishi, are among the best fantasy adventures I’ve ever read.  The story starts out in an amazing fashion with one of the best hooks in the history of books (I reviewed book one about a month ago), but it’s gone so far that it’s hard to remember how simple things were for the book’s brother and sister heroes – Navin and Emily – back then.

The story begins with the kids moving, along with their mom, to a creepy old house that has been in the family for generations, but was last inhabited by their great-grandfather, the eccentric old Silas.  The mom’s scraping to make ends meet and at her wit’s end, so she moves her family into the house, because the free price tag is all she can afford.

Before they’ve even spent an entire night there, a spooky ghosty octopus-demon thing snatches mom away, taking her to another world/dimension.

Emily and Navin follow, Emily wearing an amulet the kids found while snooping around, and they soon learn that Emily is what is known as a stonekeeper, a person that can connect with the stone in the old amulet to perform some incredible feats of magic.  They go after their mother, while the evil prince of the elves tries to stop them, and before long they meet that eccentric, long-lost great-grandfather and an odd assortment of good guys, like the robot bunny, the tin-man engineer, the ninja fox warrior, and the old man/cat person that pilots a blimp/plane.  

By book four, which is how far I’ve gotten so far, you’re in a totally unique world with its own set of rules, wondering if the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good, because the author throws some incredible twists and turns at you in every chapter.

I don’t know how long this series will go on, but it’s got me hooked, because it’s one of the best fantasy stories I’ve ever read.  To top it off, the art work is unbelievable.  In each book there are three or four sections where Kibuishi changes things around – instead of five or six little panels on a page, he makes a few giant pictures that go across two whole pages – these ones make you stop and stare for a while.  The imagination, the artistic talent, the incredible storytelling…. Amulet has it all.

I’ve got book five on hold at the public library, and I can’t wait ’til it comes in.

Bone 7, 8, and 9

13 09 2012

Way back in the day, great stories were written in the form of epic poems.

The Iliad told the story of the Trojan War – a decades long battle started when the Trojan prince, Paris ran off with Helen, the wife of a Greek King.  The Greeks invaded Troy, resulting in a war that lasted 20 years and destroyed an entire civilization.  After that war ended, one of the Greek generals, Odysseus, tried to go home.

The Odyssey told his story, and how he incurred the wrath of the god Poseidon and secured the aid of the goddess Athena who battled with one another to prevent him from getting/help him to get home.  Along the way he fights monsters, storms, and curses for years and years.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the story of a Mesopotamian King.  Beowulf tells the tale of a fierce Norse warrior called upon to save his whole society.  The legend of King Arthur, the fictional king that was said to unite all the tribes of great Britain, is another epic tale.  The common thread among all these stories are fantastical adventures that cover vast place and time.  

In more recent times, stories like Harry Potter, His Dark MaterialsThe Chronicles of NarniaThe Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Redwall, and more for adults, The Dark Tower and A Game of Thrones have all been called modern day epics due to the incredible scope, fantastical characters, and exciting adventures in each of these tales.

I’m going to argue that one more story should be added to this incredible list – Bone.  

Some people look at the Bone graphic novels and immediately discount them as “little kid” books, because the main characters look like silly kids’ cartoons.  And it’s true – Fone Bone, Phony Bone, and Smiley Bone are goofy and cartoony – at least in the beginning of the nine book series.  Don’t let that fool you.  They still have exactly what it takes to be great characters.  The three Bone cousins are up there with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy or Bugs, Daffy, and Porky, or even Frodo, Samwise, Merry, and Pippen from The Lord of the Rings.  

Fone Bone is the Mickey/Bugs.  He’s serious, he’s normal, and he’s loyal.  Phony is Donald/Daffy Duck – he’s angry, he’s temperamental, and he’s selfish.  Smiley Bone is just like Goofy or Porky – he’s happy, he’s silly, and he’s there for comic relief.  Now just imagine that Mickey, Donald, and Goofy find themselves in Middle Earth fighting the forces of evil for the future of mankind.  That’s Bone.  

These cartoony cousins have somehow stumbled into another world, a world in which an evil being called the Lord of the Locusts is trying to take over.  There are incredible bad guys, treacherous journeys, daring rescues,  perilous battles, and all the other things great epics need – evil villains; a chosen one growing into their role as hero; mystical animals like dragons, giant mountain lions, and the horrible rat creatures.

Over the course of the 9 books in the series (plus a prequel story called Rose and a supplement called Bone: Tall Tales), you get as much drama, action, adventure, mystery, and good vs. evil as you do in Lord or the RingsGilgameshBeowulf, or Harry Potter.

Like any great story – epic poem, graphic novel, or prose story – the only bad thing about the Bone series is that it had to end.  It’s a great ending, but I would have loved 9 more books instead.  Thank goodness some one else agrees, because there’s now a new Bone series – new characters and a new adventure in a series of illustrated novels (think Diary of a Whimpy Kid or Wonderstruckcalled Bone: Quest for the Spark.  Those new books are definitely on my “to-read” list.

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum

10 09 2012

I’ll admit it… I’m not a huge fan of non-fiction books.  There’s just something about an interesting character or a twisting and turning plot that I love, and most non-fiction lacks those qualities.

It’s weird, when I was a kid – probably from 4th through 7th grade – about all I read was non-fiction.  I couldn’t get enough about animals, dinosaurs, ancient mythology, and marine biology.  Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure I read every book that my public library had on those topics – but I never read a book about China or cars or chickens or crafts.  There were just a few topics that really worked for me.

I was really into marine biology, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what it was about that subject that hooked me, so I asked my mom if she remembered.  She did.  She said it was one book – a fictional story about a boy in the Pacific Northwest who rescues an injured seal.  After that, I couldn’t get enough about aquatic animals and marine research.  I guess sometimes it just takes one thing to trigger that.

None of this has anything to do with Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gumexcept to say that I don’t think non-fiction texts were written like this one back in the day.  If they had been filled with clever writing, fun illustrations, and an interesting part of history – perhaps I would have read more.

Meghan McCarthy’s got a ton of books like this one – strange little moments in history that won’t be in the text books (maybe that’s why the textbooks are so boring), but give you an insight into a unique moment in time.  This one, which is nominated for the Monarch Award (Illinois award for best book grades 1-3), tells about Walter Diemer, a pencil-pusher for a candy company who decides that chewing gum would be so much more fun if you could blow bubbles – so he works and works and works some more, eventually coming up with bubble gum.

There’s a lot here – unsung history, an interesting character, a lesson in innovation and determination, and some really fun illustrations.  Meghan McCarthy’s other books will definitely be on my list for my next library visit.  Who knows, maybe she’ll make a non-fiction reader out of me yet.