Allison's Book Bag

True Story from Japan

Posted on: February 24, 2012

What is your favorite young people’s novel based on a true story? In 1841, 14-year-old Nakahama Manjiro and four friends were fishing when their boat was wrecked on the island of Torishima. Author Margi Preus came across this tale when doing research for her picture book The Peace Bell, also based on a true story with Japan-America themes. She decided to write about Manjiro. The result was the full-length novel, The Heart of a Samurai: a 2011 Newbery Honor Book, an ALSC Notable Book, and a recipient of the Asian Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature, among other honors.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with more information about Preus. Then later in the week, I’ll share some facts about Nakahama Manjiro to whet your appetite for Heart of a Samurai. On the weekend, I’ll post an interview with Margi Preus and my review of her book. Save the dates: February 25-26!

Preus’ favorite place is her little writing house, featured in this photo. Besides writing, she also teaches children’s literature, fiction writing, theater courses, and a variety of other courses. When not teaching or writing, Preus to ski, hike, paddle or sit quietly with a book in her lap. Sounds like a busy but idyllic life! A couple quirky things that you might fun to know are that she most likes solitude and most fears helicopters and rattlesnakes. Like Preus, I don’t live where there are rattlesnakes. As for the helicopters, my one-time ride in one of them helped lessen my phobia of ledges.

Book Research

Where is the furthest that your research has ever taken you? For Margi Preus, it took her to Japan two times. Even so, most of her research for Heart of a Samurai is secondary or in the form of books.  Because only a limited amount of information exists about Nakahama Manjiro (the hero) himself, much of the material she read involved whaling, nautical terms, or life in traditional Japan.

Regards whaling, I found these couple of tidbits about Preus. First, her constant companion was Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Second, she found writing about whaling difficult. It took her days to work up the courage to read about whaling and then more days to work up the courage to write about it. What’s the toughest task you’ve ever faced on the job?

I’ll be back on Thursday with info about Nakahama Manjiro. In the meantime, check out this video where Preus talks about why she wrote The Heart of a Samurai.

Historical Background

Imagine you are fourteen and unable to return to your country. This is the premise behind the  juvenile historical fiction novel: The Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus.

English: John Manjiro, photograph circa 1880. ...

Image via Wikipedia

Did you know for two hundred years no one was allowed to enter Japan? As such, perhaps one of the greatest hazards faced by Japanese fishermen was getting caught in a storm that could blow their boat far from their homeland. Unable to return to Japan, they might become stranded on the shores of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, or points as far east as the North American coast. Those who drifted south ended their journey on Taiwan, Luzon, Annam, or some South Pacific island. Few survived this ordeal. If lucky enough to be rescued by a foreign ship, they had no assurance they would get home.

In 1841, fourteen-year-old Nakahama Manjiro and his four friends were fishing when their boat was wrecked on the island of Torishima. When the American whaler ship John Howland passed by the island six months later, the fishermen considered the Americans barbarians and feared for their lives. The Americans had similar prejudices, viewing the Japanese as cannibals and spies. Yet somehow Manjiro not only visits America, but he also returns home to Japan and is instrumental in easing open its boundaries.

You can read more about the real-life Nakahama Manjiro at:


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I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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