Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Summer is wrapping up and you want to give the kids a bit of culture, maybe a trip to a museum. Hard to sell? A new exhibit at the Birmingham Museum of Art (through September 21, 2014), is titled, Lethal Beauty: Samurai Weapons and Armor. No need to mention museums…yet. Just leave a novel or two about these warriors in traditional Japan lying around. Take it from there.

HEART OF A SAMURAI by Margi Preus, Abrams, 2010

Every author has a story in her heart that just begs to be told. Some carry that story for years before it bursts forth on the page. Author Margi Preus stumbled across this story of “a courageous boy who nurtured friendship and understanding between two previously antagonistic countries.” She traveled to the boy’s hometown, hardly a trek next door, and her journey resulted in introducing the young reader, maybe even a reluctant reader boy, to Manjiro.

While his four companions whine and complain and make the harrowing experiences of their 1841shipwreck personal, Manjiro looks for a way to survive. He tries to make the situation better for everyone, but when he reveals during their long, lonely vigil, scanning the horizon for a rescue ship, that his ambition is to be a samurai, they laugh, knowing full well that he was not born to be one. They are finally rescued by an American whaler. Another adventure begins as Manjiro learns a new language, new laws, and sometimes the confusing customs of America, a foreign land inhabited, as his friends believe, by devils that will gobble them up. Manjiro realizes upon his return to Japan that everyone in his country believes that about Americans. Japan had been isolated for 250 years. The Japanese people had no way of knowing anything about America.

Admiral Perry arrives and insists the Japanese open their ports to him. Manjiro is able to translate. Although he does not speak directly with the Americans, he does advise the shogun.  

Manjiro is a fine role model for boys of any century. In his longing, he brings the samurai code to life and makes it his. Spoiler alert: He is made a samurai by the shogun. “Unprecedented for a person not born of a samurai family and of such low rank to be elevated to such status.” 

In the epilogue, we learn that Manjiro wrote the first English book for Japanese people, A Shortcut to English Conversation, started the whaling industry in Japan and joined the first Japanese Embassy to the United States as an interpreter. Believed to be the first Japanese person to set foot in America, he has been called “the boy who discovered America.”

The book is enriched by a number of illustrations, including pencil drawings by Manjiro who became known as John Mung.

I plan to share a couple more samurai books. Circle a date for that museum trip.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Hitch in Summer Plans?

You’re stuck at the beach and it’s raining. Or the plans for a fun day at home fell through and your house has an echo: “There’s nothing to do, nothing to do, nothing to do.”  Your kids aren’t teenagers yet. They’re too young to sound so old. If only your reluctant readers liked to read.

That’s not just boredom talking; it’s opportunity knocking. Hide this book where it’s sure to be discovered.

A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT by Jim Averbeck, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014

Chapter one, sentence one: “No body meant no casket,…” Here begins Jack’s tale of woe, guaranteed to make any bored pre-teen realize life could be worse.  11 year old Jack never knew his dad and now his mom has driven off a pier. Jack is sitting in the funeral home looking at his mother's head shot and all the props supplied by her acting troop for a Hollywood funeral. By the end of the chapter, Jack and his buddy Schultzie have wiggled through a basement window in the funeral home. Jack has decided to seek answers. What they find is two sheet covered bodies that have no answers for them, but Jack decides not to take no, or no response, as final.

Then his Aunt Edith arrives to take charge. Boo, hiss! Things get worse and, if there were such a word, worser.

One would think that when Aunt Edith is kidnapped, life would be better for Jack. It’s really hard for the reader to feel sad about this turn of events. Why not say, “Good riddance!” or “Who cares?”

But Jack cares. Remember, he never knew his father, has lost his mom to a tragic accident, and except for Aunt Edith, he is a Boy Alone, a whole orphan with no family. 

Then he meets Alfred Hitchcock. THE Alfred Hitchcock.

The first page of each chapter features a panel of drawings, cartoon style, by Nick Bertozzi. How appealing for any reader who has been confronted with a writing assignment in school and made to tell his story in words, not pictures. I suspect the author may relate.

Each chapter is a title of a Hitchcock movie. At the back of the book, the author has provided a list of these movies with famous scenes and where to see those…look for it…Hitchcock cameo appearances. Parents may be inspired to start a series of summer movie nights. There are 35 chapters and 35 Hitchcock films to enjoy.

I don’t want to spoil any surprises. With lots of action and Hitchcockian suspense, readers will be eagerly turning pages to get to the end which they won’t see coming. I didn’t.

Parents will enjoy reading about the author’s interesting life. Their kids will be too busy reading the book.

It's hard to predict when you will realize the book you so cleverly tucked away has disappeared. Your reluctant reader has disappeared, too. Find one and you will find the other.


Hillview School Library