Read Aloud Thursday: Ninjas and Samurai

One of the benefits of being a parent, and perhaps especially true for homeschooling parents, is that your kids expose you to new interests and passions. You won’t find me playing Pokemon anytime soon but I have become more of an interested if very amateur birdwatcher because of David. And John’s fascination with anything to do with battles and weapons has led us to several arms and armory exhibits.

John’s current obsession of sorts is with ninjas. This is primarily due to those marketing geniuses at Lego (if you don’t have a 4-10 year old boy you might not know that their Ninjago line is the current hot hot thing.) Trust me, it is. Last week in history we read about Japan at the time of the warlords and first shogun. Even though ninjas and samurai were more prominent in the centuries before our reading it seemed like too good of an opportunity to capture John’s interest.

The Samurai's Daughter

This retelling of a Japanese legend by Robert San Souci tells the story of a brave Samurai’s daughter who sets off to rescue him when he is exiled to a mysterious island by an emperor who has lost his mind. Along the way, she battles a ghost ship and an evil sea serpent. John said it was “ok”. He liked that it was “pretty exciting” but I think he didn’t like that the protagonist was a girl (not that he’s a chauvinist but that he’s at an age when he’d rather pretend girls just didn’t exist). I thought it was a nice retelling with illustrations that added to the excitement.

Three Samurai Cats: A Story from Japan

Everyone loved this adaptation by Eric Kimmel( a master of picture book folktale adaptations) . When a daimyo’s (Japanese warlord) castle is invaded by a huge rat, he goes to the nearby monastery to ask for a samurai’s  help in getting rid of the rat. Two fierce warrior samurai cats come and in turn are defeated by the rat. The monk then sends Neko Roshi, a samurai cat that he promises is the one that will be succesful. The daimyo is surprised when Neko Roshi shows up and is old and wearing tattered clothes. He is even more surprised when he refuses to fight the rat and lies on the mat sleeping all day. As you can imagine, there is a twist at the end and the rat is ultimately defeated. The story is very funny and clever and the boys both loved it and asked for it several times. What really makes this book special though are the detailed witty cartoon-like illustrations by Mordecai Gerstein.

Blue Fingers: A Ninja's Tale

This year I’m assigning books for John to read on his own instead of just letting him read whatever he wants. (He can still read whatever he wants,he just also has to read what I’ve assigned.)  Some of these will go along with his history studies, some won’t. John has become a fairly prolific reader and I can’t read everything that he does or I wouldn’t read anything else. However, since this book by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel was in the young adult section I read it first to make sure that it wasn’t inappropriate for a 7 year old. I can’t say that on my own I’d choose to read a YA fiction book about ninjas. But I can say that after doing so, I really enjoyed this one.

Blue Fingers tells the tale of  twelve year old Koji, a peasant boy in sixteenth century Japan. Koji is a twin which is considered very unlucky so his parents have mostly hidden the fact that they have twins. When Koji’s twin, Taro, saves the life of a master dye maker, the dye maker offers Taro an apprenticeship. Koji is sent instead for mysterious reasons surrounding his birth that he does not understand. However, he is forced to leave the apprenticeship due to clumsiness. Shamed, he runs away and is captured by a band of ninjas. The main part of the story centers on his time in the ninja camp and there is a good deal of information about ninja culture and training (the author’s note at the end discusses the historical accuracy and her research). I learned some new things. For example, did you know that ninjas routinely dislocated the joints of babies so that as they grew up they could dislocate their joints at will and easier hide or slip into small spaces?

John had not enjoyed the assigned book before this one because it wasn’t exciting enough. He told me he likes “books where a lot happens”.  So far, he has been devouring this book as it has a lot of action. There is a local samurai who is evil and serves as the villain of the story and Koji eventually becomes central to a plot that involves tricking him to help the people of their valley. There are lot of descriptions of warfare and ninja training and weapons and spying. Throw in a few mysteries and secret identities and you have a good solid adventure story.

I liked that in addition to the action there are some good things to think about and that I plan to discuss with John as he reads. Why does Koji feel that he has shamed his family? What would it be like to live in a culture where family honor was of the primary importance? Why does Koji first admire the samurai and then come to hate him? If the samurai is “bad” then are the Ninjas all good? And if they are good then what about the way they kidnap Koji and refuse to let him go home?

As for the appropriateness for a seven year old, I’d say it is appropriate for my seven year old. There actually isn’t a lot of violence, although there are several disturbing scenes. The most disturbing part is that the secret surrounding Koji’s birth is that at his birth his parents first attempted infanticide because they were so afraid of the  bad luck of twins. He survived however, and it was prophesied that he would be great. This is all revealed to him by his mother at the end of the book and is a very small part of the book, although somewhat central to the plot. Primarily because of this one plot point, I did question whether or not to let John read it but in the end I decided it would be ok. But we’ll definitely discuss that section together, and I may even read that chapter out loud. Other than that, there is a great deal of mysticism that relates to Ninja philosophy. John is really well-grounded in his faith and I don’t have a problem with him reading about other faiths/beliefs. We just talk about what he’s read. I know other parents have different approaches though.

Bottom line: I’d definitely recommend Blue Fingers for kids who like action or to go along with a study on Japan. For younger kids I’d recommend pre-reading first.

And don’t forget to stop by Hope is the Word for more Read Aloud Thursday selections.

2 thoughts on “Read Aloud Thursday: Ninjas and Samurai

  1. Pingback: Read Aloud Thursday: Persia « Supratentorial

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