Blood and battles abound in the epic story of one of Japan’s first samurai.
Recommended grade level: 6 and up
Pages: 236 (for ISBN 9781580895842)
Tone/Style: grimly gleeful
Summary: Child exile. Teenage runaway. Military genius. Immortal hero.
Yoshitsune had little going for him. Exiled to a monastery, he had no money, no allies, and no martial training. He wasn’t big or strong or good-looking. His only assets were brains, ambition, and a dream. But childhood dreams can change history.
At the age of fifteen, Yoshitsune escaped. Blow by painful blow, he learned the art of the sword. Fall after bruising fall, he mastered mounted archery. He joined his half brother Yoritomo in an uprising against the most powerful samurai in Japan.
This is the story of insane courage and daring feats, bitter rivalry and fatal love. Based on one of the great works of Japanese history and literature, Samurai Rising takes a clear-eyed, very modern look at the way of the samurai—and at the man who became the most famous samurai of all. (Source)
Who will like this book?: This book gives fiction a run for its money. Readers looking for action, grit, and excitement will be all over this. Lots of teens are interested in Japanese culture, too, so that’s an extra hook. The fact that they’re learning about history while they’re at it is a bonus for teachers and parents.
Who won’t like this book?: Sensitive or squeamish readers beware; though there isn’t too much gory detail, there’s enough to disturb certain readers. The book accurately captures the brutality of life in 12th century Japan, and none of the characters are exactly good role models. This may turn off readers who like positive stories about admirable people.
Other comments: I’ve had a lot of success booktalking this title. A great way to hook them is to read the bold line on the back cover: “Very few people in this story die of natural causes.” The book has extensive back matter and beautiful illustrations.
Readalikes: I’m hard-pressed to think of anther nonfiction title with as much death and dismemberment as this one. I would say Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb matches it in terms of page-turning excitement. In fiction, fans may enjoy the Sisters of the Sword series by Maya Snow. Also try The Bamboo Sword by Margi Preus and the manga Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki, though it’s worth mentioning that these take place some 900 years later than Yoshitsune’s story. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi is an imported Japanese fantasy set in a fictional location similar to ancient Japan, and is full of adventure. You might also recommend the classic Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai.