Title: Heart of a Samurai
Author: Margi Preus
ISBN: 9780810989818
Pages: 301 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, c2010.

“We can never go back to Japan, you know,” Goemon said, staring across the sea.
“Why not?”
“The law says, ‘Any person who leaves the country and later returns will be put to death.'”
They brooded on this in silence.
Finally, Manjiro said, “But why?
“Because, if we were to encounter any of the foreign devils, we would be poisoned by them.”
“Poisoned!” Manjiro said.
“Maybe not our bodies, but they will poison our minds with their way of thinking. That’s why no fishermen are allowed to go very far from the coast — they say ‘contamination lies beyond the reach of the tides.’ The barbarians would fill our heads with wrong thoughts!” (14)

Fourteen-year-old Manjiro is on his first fishing trip with four others when a storm damages their boat and blows them off course, stranding them on an uninhabited island. They have no way of getting home, and even if they did, Japan has closed their borders to everyone, including Japanese who have left the country, for fear their citizens will be influenced by the outsiders’ way of thinking. When an American whaling ship passes by, they have no other option than to climb aboard. But will Manjiro ever be able to return to his home, his family, and his impossible dream of becoming a samurai?

I received an Advanced Copy of this book at ALA last year, and never got around to reading it. After reading the published version, I’m kicking myself just a little bit. The cover bills it as “a novel inspired by a true adventure on the high seas,” and Preus does a spot-on job at backing up that claim. There are drawings done by Manjiro scattered throughout the text and his real words also supplement the story. At the end of the book is extensive back matter (close to 25 pages) that includes an epilogue, a historical note, glossaries of Japanese words, terms, and places, whaling terms, sailor lingo, and other miscellaneous terms, and a list of suggested reading on assorted topics for both adults and younger readers.

While the story is spread over the course of ten years, Preus leap-frogs from one event to another, keeping the action and adventure moving. She also approaches the racism that Manjiro experienced with care, compassion, and understanding, as Manjiro is quite possibly the first Japanese to reach American soil and the other residents don’t know what to make of him. He’s certainly not black or white and, in an age where the two groups were separated, his uniqueness is emphasized by the fact that Manjiro’s caretakers had to change churches twice in order to find one that would accept him.

Manjiro’s inquisitive nature is also emphasized in his constant questions that he asks everyone. From his fellow sailors to his rescuers and the people he encounters in America, Manjiro seems especially suited to bridge the gap between Japan and America. His open personality makes it difficult for anyone to escape his charm. I was instantly drawn into the story, and other readers will do likewise once they discover this Newbery Honor book. This is a book that I talked about with all 5th and 6th grade students when discussing Summer Reading Club, and several seemed interested.