The whole time I was reading Heart of a Samurai, I felt like it was the kind of book my sixth grade teacher would have assigned, claiming that I was going to LOVE it. In fact, it was just a little…stiff. More like an assignment than a novel. Maybe I was biased from having just read the magical Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. That book is a hard act to follow!
I wondered if the Newbery judges picked it for its cultural significance (as opposed to literary beauty?). The general story line is that Manjiro, a boy from a small fishing village in Japan, is shipwrecked and eventually rescued by a ship captained by an American. The captain takes Manjiro home with him and treats Manjiro as a son, but Manjiro nevertheless faces discrimination. Eventually, Manjiro succeeds in returning to his native Japan (after about 10 years, I think), where is he imprisoned as a suspected spy. Manjiro convinces his captors that he is not a spy and that Japan needs to become more open to interaction with foreigners.
It’s based on a true story, which may be the cause of the “assignment” vibe. I think it can be a very difficult task to follow a story line that has already been set out for you, and maintain the creativity and flexibility necessary to write a really compelling book.
I feel a little big crazy complaining about this book — I mean, out of all the books published in 2011, only 5 were honored by the Newbery committee. But it wasn’t my favorite. There. I said it.
Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus
Newbery Honor – 2011
A.R Level – 5.4; Middle Grades