ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm Melissa Block. And it's time for NPR's Backseat Book Club. Each month, we invite kids to read a book along with us. This month, we hit the high seas for an adventure novel called "Heart of a Samurai" by Margi Preus. The young man at the center of the novel is one of the first people from Japan to set foot in the United States. Here's Michele Norris with the story.
MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
The book begins in 1841. It's based on the sprawling true life tale of Manjiro Nakahama, whose destiny was almost determined before birth as a son in a long line of fishermen. However, a storm blew his life on a new course. It's a story that's so fantastic, so full of twists and turns that it would be hard to make it up. The book spans several decades, but we asked author Margi Preus to get us started with a quick sketch of Manjiro's life.
MARGI PREUS: He left Japan at age 14 and going out on his first fishing trip was swept away from the coast of Japan, shipwrecked, picked up by an American whaling ship about five months after living on this rather forbidding island. And he ended up coming to America, studying here for a few years and then had many, many adventures along the way, but finally made his way back to Japan where he had a hand in shaping modern Japan by influencing the shogun to open Japan's isolationist doors to the West.
NORRIS: Now, notice that last phrase: open Japan to the West. Well, in the 1800s, Japan was completely cut off from the outside world, so isolated that even details of Western life that seem almost mundane today were exotic to a young Manjiro, things like buttons on a shirt or pockets in a pair of trousers. Manjiro first encounters Westerners when he's rescued from an island after being shipwrecked. And he and his Japanese culture are equally strange to the whalers who save him.
What Preus does with finesse and grace is get inside the mind of young Manjiro. She serves up such gorgeous details of his daily life that the readers feel transported in time and space. Now, children today can use a few clicks of their keyboards to discover another country or a foreign culture, but Manjiro grew up in a completely closed society, and Preus helps explain what it must have been like for him to land in a world that he didn't even know existed.
PREUS: I thought how odd English must have sounded to him, and it really must have sounded like nonsense when he heard it the first time.
NORRIS: And there must be this wonderful moment for young readers where he's describing the people who rescued him with their blue eyes and their flat noses and their facial hair. And I imagine a young reader reading this and thinking, wait, that looks like Dad, that looks like my teacher, that looks like the guy I just saw at the grocery store...
NORRIS: ...that looks like me.
PREUS: Yeah. It was - yeah. It was interesting to think about how would these people appear to him because he was so, you know, they were so isolated where they lived that they really did not see anyone who was not Japanese. You know, all the different colors and permutations of humanity that we have on the globe would not have been anyone he would have seen. How would he think of that or what could he compare it to?
NORRIS: And you introduce young readers to the language that was used to describe the other, things like butter stinkers.
PREUS: These Westerners smelled bad to them, and they believed that the reason they smelled bad was because they ate butter. It was hard to think of terms that could be used to describe people who are from different cultures, but the, you know, the Japanese had come up with some - already foreigners and barbarians and devils and demons and butter stinkers.
NORRIS: One of those butter stinkers was Captain John Whitfield, who takes Manjiro under his wing and brings him back to his home state of Massachusetts. They find in each other the family they need, and Manjiro finds out what it means to be American. Here, Margi Preus reads from a section of her book where Manjiro has an aha moment while competing in a horse race.
PREUS: (Reading) Independent, he shouted at the top of his lungs. What was this feeling? This out in the open, wind in the hair, whooping and hollering, rip-roaring feeling? It was something he felt often in America, this land of whoopers and hollerers, of people who laughed whenever they felt like it, sang as they strolled down the country roads and whistled inside the house if so moved. They went here and there, traveling to far away places in fast moving machines, and nobody troubled them about who they were or where they were going or what business they had in that place. This feeling he realized - as the road raced beneath him and the bright green spring forest rushed by and the sky was a moving ocean of blue - this was the feeling of freedom.
NORRIS: Freedom, something that would have felt a little bit foreign to someone who grew up in a society where so much of life was so carefully prescribed.
PREUS: Yes. Their lives were so prescribed that they had to live in certain kinds of houses. They could only eat certain kinds of foods, and even as children they could only play with certain kinds of toys depending upon what their status was in life.
NORRIS: Our Backseat Book Club readers had great questions, and several came from one of the towns where Manjiro lived when he came to America. So special thanks to the students from Hastings Middle School in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, who shared their questions.
LACEY BERNARD: Hi. I'm Lacey Bernard(ph), and I'm in seventh grade. Did you come to the town of Fairhaven to do research? And if so, how long did you end up spending here in Fairhaven to do research for your story?
PREUS: Yeah. I did visit Fairhaven and also New Bedford, and I was there for a couple days the first time, and then I went back again. So it was interesting to be there to see the places where he lived and just to walk around on the streets. All of that really helped inform my feelings about him as a character and about the people and, of course, about the place, and it really helped with the writing to go there.
NORRIS: Margi Preus also ventured to Manjiro's hometown in Japan where she learned more about what made him tick.
PREUS: I felt that the ruggedness of his - of the countryside where he lived would have given him a kind of a fierce independent nature. And the fact that they were so remote from Edo or Tokyo and all the places of power, I think, may have also fostered a kind of independence of spirit.
NORRIS: When Manjiro returned to Japan and rose to become a samurai, his experience in America and his knowledge of English was instrumental. He was the primary force behind Japan's move from isolation to an open-door diplomacy. And when you open the pages of this book, "Heart of a Samurai," you discover more than just the imagined life of Manjiro. You also find his drawings. You'll see all kinds of artifacts from his life in Japan and a glossary of Japanese terms and sailors' lingo. And with that, I guess it's time for us to - as the sailors would say - swallow the anchor and move on to our next reading adventure. I'm Michele Norris.
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BLOCK: And that next book is "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" by Jeff Kinney. He was the Children's Choice Author of the Year. You can send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.