book review

The Boy Who Discovered America with the Heart of a Samurai

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Sometimes, a book just speaks to you. You know the second you see it, that it will be magical.

I picked up a copy of this book because of the lovely cover, drawings, and illustrations inside. I was hoping the book would be as good as it’s cover and it didn’t disappoint. From the minute we started we were taken away on a real life adventure.

Heart of a Samurai is author Margi Preus’ first novel for the young and it won a bank of awards including a Newbery Honor Book.

This is a wonderfully captivating TRUE story about 14 year old Manjiro, a Japanese boy who was swept out to sea in a fishing boat. After spending a month on Bird Island, Manjiro along with 4 other fishermen were rescued by an American whaling vessel called the John Howland.

Manjiro quickly learned English, became a sailor and learned how to catch a whale, traveled all over the world, was adopted by Captain Whitfield, went to school in America, signed on another whaling ship, worked the gold fields of California, and then finally after many years, returned to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.

Manjiro, whose American name was John Mung, had to endure many taunts and much bigotry not only on the ship but on land as well. Interspersed throughout  the text in this book are Manjiro’s sketches and drawing.

Something To Do: Let’s Discover

Manjiro/John Mung: Manjiro/John Mung is actually a true story. He was from a small fishing village off the coast of Shikoku Japan in Naka-no-hama. Though his story is very well detailed in this book Heart of a Samurai, his story continued on.


Using his know-how of western shipbuilding, Manjiro contributed on behalf of the Shogunate to build a modern Japanese navy. Japan had been cut off from the world for 250 years. Manjiro, working as an ambassador between Japan and the United States, participated in the construction of  the Shohei Mary, Japans first western style warship to be built after opening up its borders.

Along with shipbuilding he translated Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator into Japanese, and taught his countrymen naval tactics, whaling techniques, and English.

Among his many accomplishments, Manjirō was probably the first Japanese to ride a railroad, sail in a steamship, to be an officer of an American vessel, and to command a trans-Pacific voyage.

In Fairhaven, the Manjirō Historic Friendship Society is renovating William Whitfield’s home to include a museum dealing with the Manjirō legacy.

Our first step in discovering Manjiro’s life was to follow his footsteps taking the Manjiro Trail.  Though we couldn’t be there in person, this lovely photographic map of Manjiro’s life in Fairhaven Massachusetts fills in the blanks and gives a close up look at Manjiro’s legacy there.

Acts of Friendship

Manjiro was a very kind and friendly person regardless of how people treated him. He always kept his honor by being respectful. While living in Fairhaven MA, he celebrated May Day by quietly leaving a May Day basket for Catherine, the girl he liked so much. It was the tradition at that time for a boy to make a May Day basket filled with flowers and leave it at the door of the girl he liked. Once the basket was deposited, the boy would knock on the door and then runaway with the girl he gave the flowers to chasing him. The idea was for her to catch him and give him a kiss. Though Manjiro ended up going back to Japan and working as an envoy to the United States, Catherine kept her May Day basket and the note he had written to her until the day she died, which was way into her 80’s.

As a sign of friendship, why not make a flower basket and give it to someone you’d like to know better? Word Play House has wonderful  May Day basket ideas which are good for any season.


Edo Period of Japan

Heart of a Samurai is set in the late 1800’s which is the end of the feudal Edo period of Japan. The Edo period lasted from 1603 to 1868. The first Shogun was Tokogawa Ieyasu, who ended years of civil war and established a stable society.

To secure his status as leader of a unified Japan, Ieyasu introduced a strict class system and the tight control of the ruling daimyo families from the capital city Edo (Tokyo).The four levels of society were created around Shi-No-Ko-Sho, Samurai (warrior),peasant, artisan, and merchant. Individuals had no legal rights and the family became very important at all social levels.

To read more about the Shi-No-Ko-Sho, go HERE.

Japanese Language: Did You Know?

In Japan they speak Japanese. That’s why when Manjiro was rescued on the John Howland he had to quickly learn English.The Japanese alphabet has 99 sounds formed with 5 vowels (a,e,i,o,u) and 14 consonants (k,s,th,m,y,r,w,g,z,d,b,p,and,n).Unlike English, which has one alphabet for writing and speaking, Japanese is written with 3 types of characters or alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.Each alphabet has it’s own function but combinations of all three are used to make written sentences.

 Japanese Games: Let’s Play

During our reading of Heart of a Samurai there were moments when the reality was really severe such as being stranded on an island, living on a whaling vessel, and living in a new country. At the same time Munjiro was still a kid. There were really sweet moments in this book where kids will be kids, and that was expressed through playing games. Much discussion broke out in our house about American games played at that time period, but what my children really wanted to know was what games do Japanese children play. One of our favorite friends from Japan is Yuki, and she taught us two fun games that we’re still playing.
The purpose of this game is to hit your playing piece into another players piece. The Players take turns flicking small, coin-shaped pieces called ohajiki with their fingers. Any type of round game piece will do. We used small glass pieces that you can find at your arts and craft store in the florist department.
How To Play
First sort out the same number of playing pieces for each player. Each player chose a color and then were given the number of playing pieces decided upon. Next we needed to decide who was going to go first. There is a very famous game which exists both in the States and in Japan. It’s called Rock,Paper, Scissors. In Japan Rock, Paper, Scissor is used to decide many things and is taught almost before one can walk. The way you say it in Japanese is Jan Ken Pon. To decide the order of play or who goes first, second, etc. Play a game of Jan Ken Pon (Rock, Paper, Scissors).
  1. The first player to take a turn gathers up everyone’s pieces and scatters them on the playing surface with one hand.
  2. The player chooses two pieces, draws an imaginary line to show which one they intend to hit.
  3. If the player hits the piece they have indicated then they get to keep it. If they don’t, they lose their turn and the game continues with the next player.
  4. At the end of the game, the person with the most pieces wins.

Whaling Let’s Be Mindful & Informed

The topic of whaling is a highly controversial one. The cycle of greed behind the global whaling industry has driven one whole whale population after another towards oblivion. Between 1925, when the first whaling factory ship was introduced, and 1975 when whales started being protected, more than 1.5 million whales were killed in all.  I felt instead of “avoiding” the topic of whaling, that I would open it up so we could talk about protection and conservation as well as get a little historical perspective.

In Heart of a Samurai, I felt it was important to look at the economical importance of the whaling industry.

From Eye Witness to History:

In the days before the discovery of petroleum, whale oil supplied the fuel for the lamps that illuminated the nights in American homes. In addition, the whale was the source of a boney substance called baleen used in women’s corsets, hairbrushes, buggy whips, collar stays and various other products.

During the 19th century whaling was a lucrative business and it made many East Coast seaports rich. Ports such as New Bedford, Massachusetts and Nantucket thrived. Their whaling ships roamed the seas of the world on voyages lasting up to four years. These special-purpose vessels were fast, rugged and versatile. Not only did they carry the equipment necessary for hunting and killing their prey, but the technology for processing, storing and preserving their catch until their return to port. They were the forerunners of today’s factory ships

Just like in Heart of a Samurai : For the whaleman, it was a rough and dangerous life. Once a whale was sighted, the crew took to their whaleboats in pursuit with the immediate objective of harpooning their prey. If the harpooner successfully speared a victim, the whaleboat and its crew were treated to what was called a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” as the whale dragged its hunters through the sea in an attempt to escape. After two to three hours of this rollercoaster ride, the whale would tire, be finished off and hauled to the mother ship. Here it was cut up and its blubber boiled down to yield its precious oil.

Get Ready to Explore a whaling port from the 1850’s and set sail on a whaling voyage around the world.

The Whaling Journal

After seeing the above video I was really inspired to do our own whale journal project. We ordered Peleg Folger’s Remarkable Observations. Peleg was a 17 year old Nantucket whaler who kept a personal log of his adventures at sea. Currently we are doing a geography project which takes the Longitudes and Latitudes and marking them on a google earth map. As we mark them online we are also marking them on a globe so we can see exactly how the voyage journeyed across the sea.

This journal is so interesting and we really can’t wait to see what happens next. My son, like my father, has a great love of tall ships. The idea of being onboard and sailing around the world has captured his attention. We are making note of the ship side language being used as well as interesting spellings and abbreviations. We are making our own journal to go along with Peleg’s.

Author Margi Preus has done a fine job on this book and we greatly enjoyed jumping further into it. Please take a moment to learn a little bit more about Margi Preus and if you like Heart of a Samurai be sure to let her know by leaving her a message on her website or sending her an email.

Listen to author Margi Preus and visit her here.




Valarie Budayr is the founder of Audrey Press and author of the books The Fox Diaries: The Year the Foxes Came to our Garden and The Ultimate Guide To Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. She is passionate about making kid’s books come alive and when she isn’t jumping into a book and creating wildly inventive adventures, she is “mom” to three uber creative children, married to a wonderfully patient man who has come to love yarn, proud owner of one adored cat, and the Fox Whisperer to lots and lots of Foxes (that come and go as they please). You can also find Valarie on Facebook or on Twitter at @Bookjumper.



1 thought on “The Boy Who Discovered America with the Heart of a Samurai

  1. This post is PACKED with activities to accompany this touching book. Our 10-year-old daughter is attends Japanese class in the hopes of learning the language and becoming an exchange student to her favorite country. She brought this book home from the library and shared it with me. A few evenings later I came to the end, and also agree that it is a wonderful book to share with children (and I’m glad our child shared it with me). You have collected so many interesting activities to go along with this story. I’m sharing your post with our daughter, to go along with the story we both enjoyed so much. Thank you too for the little surprise—linking to our May Day baskets above, to that very meaningful part of this story.

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