White Crane (Samurai Kids #1) by Sandy Fussell , illustrated by Rhian Nest James 2010
IQ "Zen questions are easy for me because I know the secret. It's NOTHING. The answer to every question is some sort of NOTHING. If you say nothing, you are wise because you already know the answer and don't need to speak it. If you jump up and yell NOTHING, you are wise and generous with your knowledge." Niya pg. 29
Ki-Yaga teaches at the Cockroach Ryu, where he accepts many students that other schools might not. At the Cockroach Rye, he trains his students to be samurai. His students include Niya (our narrator) who has one leg, Kyoko (extra fingers and toes), Mikko (one arm), Yoshi (no fighting spirit, even though he is strong and tall) and Taji (blind). As Ki Yaga says "A cracked bowl can hold water. There is nothing wrong with the bowl. It just needs to be held properly." (pg.6-7). Ki Yaga teaches the students everything ranging from sword fighting to swimming to writing haikus. He does this while taking many naps. The Cockroaches are preparing for the Samurai Trainee Games, which they've never won, instead they usually face mocking from the other samurais-to-be. The Cockroaches don't have any hope of winning, they just don't want to be last anymore.
Niya is such an entertaining main character. I found some of the humor in this book to be a little juvenile, but it's perfect for kids in middle school and younger (4th or 5th grade). He is unafraid to poke fun at himself, however he also teases the kids at his Ryu and his teacher. I would have preferred less explanation of everything that the samurai did, I think readers can figure it out from the context, but I know there are readers who might be more impatient and don't want to have to look things up. I knew a little bit more about the samurai from my World Religions class and Samurai Shortstop, so that might also have contributed to my impatience at all the translations and explanations. One thing I didn't understand was the spirit animals (Niya's is the white crane). I couldn't figure out if the spirit animals were real or if the kids simply referred to their spirit animals to give them courage.
Just when you start to think the ending will be predictable, the author slices (with a samurai sword of course) your predictable thoughts and inserts a fun twist in the end. The artwork was very well done. Each chapter has a relatively simple illustration to start it off, along with one full picture in each chapter. What I found most interesting was how tasteful the drawings of the students were. There's no gore or anything, in some pictures you can see Niya's one leg or Mikko's one arm but for the most part the missing body part is artfully hidden. The pictures are in black and white which suits the book more and the illustrations added to the fun and vivid imagery of the story.
White Crane is an engaging story set in feudal Japan when the rules of the samurai are slowly changing to become more modern. There is a lot of struggle going on between teachers vs. students and students vs. students over what traditions should stay and what should go. I love that the author gave each of these students disabilities that were seemingly impossible to overcome. They have a long way to go, but they are slowly learning how to adapt to their missing limb/blindness/extra limbs. I loved reading about Niya and his friends, they were loyal to each other and true friends. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.
Disclosure: Received from April at Good Books & Good Wine Yay, thanks again April!