Margi Preus had a really good idea. She wrote a book based on one of the most interesting episodes in history, and Heart of a Samurai is so good that it was named a 2011 Newbery Honor Book this past January. Heart of a Samurai is about a Japanese boy named Manjiro who, along with four friends, was shipwrecked on a remote island. But this was in the mid-19th century, and Japan was isolated from the rest of the world. When the boys are literally starving to death, they are rescued by an American whaling ship. The ship’s captain (and my favorite character) Captain Whitfield, offers to bring Manjiro and the others back to New Bedford, Massachusetts with him. Only one of the boys accepts his offer: Manjiro. What follows is a ten-year adventure during which Manjiro learns about life at sea and life in a seaside town. He also experiences prejudice and learns the value of taking a risk. I was totally caught up in Manjiro’s adventures and loved so many of the characters, especially Captain Whitfield, who becomes like a father to Manjiro.
I first read about Manjiro, who is supposedly the first Japanese person to visit America, in Rhoda Blumberg’s wonderful nonfiction book, Shipwrecked!: The True Adventures of a Japanese Boy. As I read Preus’s novel, I kept thinking about what a great combination of books this would be to use with a group of 5th or 6th grade students. In fact, if any of my students are reading this, you can expect to learn more about Manjiro’s adventures in New Bedford next year!