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Inside Heavy Medal

Samurai Rising

9781580895842Having reread SAMURAI RISING, I can say that it has unequivocally secured a place on my ballot, and depending on the will and disposition of my hypothetical committee, I could even spend my first place vote on it!

First of all, I want to say that whatever you think of this book (and we were strongly divided on it when it was introduced in our Biography Roundup), a large part of that is how it measures up to our expectations of what constitutes excellence within this particular genre and what constitutes excellence for a particular child audience.  While we can say that of every single book that we discuss, I think it’s particularly true here.

IS THIS BOOK A BIOGRAPHY OR A HISTORY?

While I know the subtitle–The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune–suggests that this is a biography, and that indeed the chronology of the narrative follows his life, I suggested in my Horn Book review that another paradigm to judge this book against is military history, and I did that for two reasons.  First, the historical record is such that Turner cannot really present an intimate look at Yoshitsune, as we often see in the very best modern biographies.  We know what he did, but we know little about what he thought and said and felt, and what we do know about both of these things may not meet our modern standards of historiography.  And second, the focus of the book is as much on politics and intrigue, on battle and strategy as it is on the rise and fall of the most notorious samurai.  As I mentioned previously, we have lots of reference points in children’s literature for biography, not so much for military history.  Thus, we return to Stevenson’s question: Is SAMURAI RISING mind-blowingly brilliant–or merely excellent?

WHITHER PRIMARY SOURCES?

One of the things that makes this such a daring and ambitious book are the sources (or lack thereof) that Turner had available to her.  THE TALE OF THE HEIKE is one of the masterpieces of Japanese prose literature.  It grew and evolved over time, but the earliest versions appeared shortly after the events of this book.  The AZUMA KAGAMI is a semi-official record written about 100 years after these events, from court diaries, family records, temple documents, and early versions of the HEIKE.  The former source is closer to a primary source, but the nature of retelling the story repeatedly has diluted and obscured its ability to serve as such for modern historians.  The AZUMA KAGMI, on the other hand, is a secondary source, being constructed from primary (and secondary) sources that are no longer extant.  There may be more veracity within its pages, but it’s still hard to parse it out.  Turner has thoroughly documented her approach to these sources, and of course there are dozens of additional sources listed in the bibliography.

Our present expectation of good nonfiction, however, whether history or biography, is that it not only relies heavily on primary sources, but that it excerpts them quite liberally.  Steve Sheinkin, among others, is frequently able to do this to a degree where the storytelling rivals that of the best fiction.  Turner’s storytelling succeeds to a similar degree–at least in terms of plot and setting, if not character–despite the handicap of relying on secondary sources.

Can you imagine reading a novel without any dialogue?  I have read books with pages of description, a few lines of dialogue, more pages of description, a few more lines of dialogue, and it is quite tedious, to say the least.  Turner adds dialogue sparingly and judiciously, as she explains in her author’s note, and it’s to her credit then that she crafts such a suspenseful and engaging narrative with a paucity of primary source quotes standing in for dialogue.

TONE DEAF?

To this end, Turner employs a lively, engaging voice which briskly recalls this gist of the story, folding in period details, speculating where appropriate, and making the occasional glib aside.  To my mind the quick pacing coupled with the snarky tone are necessary ingredients to engage the attention of young readers in spite of the relatively dense text.  I couldn’t think of a better voice suited for this story, and yet I know that some questioned whether its tone glorified and celebrated the inherent violence in the book.  Perhaps we can discuss this further in the comments, but I think the presence of violence alone is not enough to deem it inappropriate for children.

HOW MUCH VIOLENCE IS TOO MUCH?

This is a violent story, and there is no way to hide that from the reader in a treatment of this length without being dishonest about not only the medieval world, but Japanese culture.  The violence in this book comes in fits and spurts, and is not an unrelenting, unremitting series of horrors upon horrors.  I also note Turner’s efforts throughout to contextualize the violence, describing the lack of medical care that would have soothed the multitudes of wounded in one passage, while calling out the hesitancy to kill a rival teenage boy in the heat of battle in another.

This history is part of the 7th grade World History curriculum in California, and I cannot help but think it is perfectly pitched to a junior high audience of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders (which is not to deny that younger readers may also gravitate toward it).  Is this really inappropriate for readers of this age?

Our response to violence is, in part, a taste issue.  I say this because this principle was illustrated to me early in my teaching career.  Our core novels for 5th grade included BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD.  My colleague found the death in the former to be heart-wrenching and the violence in the latter to be difficult.  I found both elements blasé.  They didn’t register with me the way they did with her, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  The wrong part is insisting that we must all read a book the same way.  I understand that some people will point to the violence, the lack of commentary on said violence, and the snarky tone as evidence that it is not suitable for a child audience.  I understand that point of view, but cannot agree with it.

MOST DISTINGUISHED?

What pushes this from merely being a distinguished book to the most distinguished (or at least being a serious contender for such)?  I would hope that plot and setting are indisputably in this category, and while there is sure to be wild disagreement on these points, I think presentation of information and style are, too.  Disagree with me?  See you in the comments.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I didn’t realize there was some concern about the violence in this book. A member of a book club I am in noted she was displeased at what she felt was objectifying language related to one of the women in the story. However, I think children are highly capable of contextualizing material and understanding that what has occurred in a book won’t necessarily apply to their own lives. Nor is a book necessarily modeling appropriate behavior. I find in particular that these days children and particularly teenagers have become so infantilized that there are unrealistic taboos related to sex, violence and drugs, among other things. This book was in no way inappropriate for most children. If adults want to dilute everything to keep children in some kind of innocent bubble, they’re doing a great disservice to them. Also, I am not a teen librarian, and I still feel this way. Peace.

  2. In response to the TONE DEAF portion of your post…

    There is a difference between the type of violence portrayed in SAMURAI RISING and the type of violence portrayed in say, the WINGS OF FIRE series. When dragons are ripping other dragons throats out and the violence is described in a violent way, to me, the violence becomes gratuitous in a way. Plus, it’s a fantastical work of fiction. In SAMURAI RISING, I don’t feel like the violence is portrayed in a gratuitous way. More of a historical account.

    Now, I’m only halfway through reading the book. Maybe there is more to come that would change my mind. As for now though, the depiction of the violence and the inclusion of the violence does not bother me, nor do I think it is harmful to children due to its historical accuracy.

    However, in discussing the tone or voice of the book, I’m not so sure. Take the following passage from early in the book:

    “Along the way Yoshitsune probably heard a few stories about his own famous family. His great-grandfather Minamoto Yoshiie was only eighteen when he began his career as barbarian killer. ‘None of his arrows left his bow in vain, and every target hit toppled over dead,’ the storytellers claimed. ‘He dashed about like lightning and flew like wind, his divine military prowess known to all.’

    No pressure, Yoshitsune.”

    The backstory filler of Yoshitsune’s barbarian killer great-grandfather doesn’t bother me. I don’t think it necessarily will bother kids either. But Turner’s insert of “No pressure, Yoshitsune,” does bother me. For one, it’s unneeded. I don’t understand her need to insert herself there. It goes beyond snarky. And furthermore, that sentence, in my opinion, does border on the fence of glorifying the violence depicted, or at least being snarky about the violence depicted. I’m not sure the sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek tone will be read by children. Is she joking that Yoshitsune should live up to that type of legend status? Why is she joking at all?

    I get what you are saying, in that given the dense subject matter, the snarky voice is needed, but I’m not sure it’s always done so correctly. There are moments where Turner should NOT have inserted herself in the way she did. And by doing so, taints the depiction of the violence in a gratuitous way.

    Not sure where I stand on this one. On one hand, it’s one of the most brilliant, thrilling, and original works of nonfiction I’ve read in the children’s realm for quite some time. Right up there with Sheinkin’s work. However, I think because of that tone you point out, I believe some of the complaints of the violence are deserved.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Mr. H, the sarcasm in that sentence–“No pressure, Yoshitsune”–makes light of the fact that his grandfather’s prowess was obviously greatly embellished (hit every target, dashed like lightning, flew like wind, divine prowess, etc). Of course, there was no way Yoshitsune could live up to that; no mortal could. But I still find no glorification of violence.

      • But there IS sarcasm there. It’s not needed. Not with this subject matter.

        “Of course, there was no way Yoshitsune could live up to that; no mortal could.”

        Live “up” to what? Becoming a barbarian killer?

        Don’t get me wrong, she doesn’t insert herself often. It’s just that when she does, its jarring and distracts from the distinguished and thrilling way she’s recounting this story. Her inserts cheapen the retelling in a way for me.

        I’m still very impressed, otherwise.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I cannot agree. I find nothing wrong with the occasional, flippant asides. I don’t find them jarring or distracting, but rather engaging. Joe contrasts them with Gidwitz and Snicket, but I find both of those narrators more obtrusive than this one.

  3. Long story short, presenting this story straight-forward, the way Turner has, MINUS the snarky insertion of her own narration from time to time, I would argue this is one of the most “distinguished” contributions to children’s literature. I’m just not sure that snarky tone is “distinguished.”

  4. Ugh, kudos for reading this twice. Once was more than enough for me. Of books that end in decapitation, I choose WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      After the events of the last three weeks WE WILL NOT BE SILENT should be required reading right now, but I don’t think that the same as being newbery worthy.

      • Agreed, Eric.

        The title alone means so much more to me now than it did when I read the book over the summer.

    • Agree, agree, agree. DaNae!!! This one was HARD for me and I did not like it at all……

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I think we’ve all had that response to reading a book of one kind or another: Ugh! One of the interesting things about being on a committee is having the opportunity to read an Ugh! book not once, but twice. “I couldn’t finish the book” or “I could barely finish the book” really aren’t convincing arguments for anybody and won’t necessarily sway ardent supporters away from a book.

  5. Eric Carpenter says:

    This one has been on the top of my imaginary ballot for many months and would love nothing better than to see it win three or four awards in January.
    I hope that the committee has a chance to consider Samurai Rising side by side with Candace Fleming’s magnificent Buffalo Bill biography.
    Like Turner, Fleming has similar challenges in crafting her narrative of the life of a man who’s story is more myth than fact. And while Fleming overcomes this challenge and creates a wonderful biography that is certainly on many a mock Siebert list, Turner’s accomplishment is even more stunning in comparison. Setting, characterizations, clarity and organization of information and most of all appropriateness of style set Samurai Rising not just ahead of every nonfiction title of 2016, but every fiction title as well.

  6. This one’s tough for me.

    When I initially read SAMURAI, I was in awe of it. It checked all the nonfiction/biography marks for me: crisp, fluid writing; seamless weaving of fact and story; rendering complex topics into flawless storytelling; exquisite “readabilitiy”. The book still holds up to these, and I still personally love the book, but I, like Mr. H., question its inclusion in the Newbery canon.

    Turner’s voice is one of the issues I have. I agree that the interrupting narrator, though amusing, affects the overall tone of the book. It does mitigate the more intense sequences in the book, but I don’t think it adds anything. It distracts… but not in the way that, say, Lemony Snicket or Adam Gidwitz distract with their authorial asides. The interrupting narrator in those books matches the tones of the novels. Turner’s just presents a jarring ramrod into a narrative that really didn’t need it.

    I have zero problems with the violence in this book. The cover of the book alone is enough to ward off sensitive readers – and I just don’t buy into the narrative of “harming readers” with writing – if I bought into that, I’d have no books on the library shelves and I’d be facing censorship challenges every day. So for me, the issue of violence is off the table. Having said that, I would acknowledge that if this is in consideration for the Newbery, it would certainly be for the upper age limits (12+). And if the very bottom age limits are taken into consideration (as in with MARKET ST.’s win last year), then surely we can consider the opposite end of the spectrum with little fanfare.

    This is a strong biography (or non-fiction book? I still struggle with cataloging it) and it is beautifully written, but it doesn’t rise to the top of the Newbery pile for me; I read far too many better books – some of them not on this particular shortlist – for it to get a vote from me.

    I’d gladly slap a YALSA Nonfiction and Sibert Medal on it, though.

    • In regards to the whole age-appropriateness argument…

      I believe it was Jonathan, or Nina, at one point on this blog saying something to the effect of a book at the high end of the age range needing to be so distinguished that it could appeal to strong readers in the low end of the age range. Meaning, the intended audience might be high end, but some low end still could read and enjoy. Is this the correct interpretation?

      I’m just curious… If SAMURAI RISING were made into a movie, is there any way the film could be made appropriately for audiences under 13?

      • I do think it could be, yes. But 13 is also an age group in which the Newbery falls, so a PG-13 rating would be totally acceptable for a film version of a Newbery book. I imagine with the killings that takes place in the opening pages, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, if turned into a movie, would land a PG-13 rating. And not to get too hung up on the rating narrative, but Harry Potter 4, 5, & 7 were all PG-13… and children as young as 8 (if not younger) read those books.

        As for “the intended audience might be high end, but some low end still could read and enjoy”, I can’t really speak to that. I’ve never been on a Newbery committee. But if it were true, then I would say the reverse should also be true: that a medal winner for the lower end of the age group should also be read and enjoyed by the older set. If that’s a fair interpretation, then there would be some major knocks lobbed against MARKET ST for being selected.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I think you can make versions of this book that are PG, PG-13, and R, depending on what your mind’s eye sees when it reads the book. My mind’s eye doesn’t “see” the violence when I read it, so my own personal movie probably sits on the border of PG and PG-13. And really, the violence in this book (and the glorification thereof) *pales* in comparison next to something like THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman, what with bloody bear battles and severed daemons.

        There is clarifying language in the back of the manual about books for ages 13- and 14-year-olds that asks us to consider whether what these more complex and sophisticated narratives do as well for their audience as a younger book does for its audience. Personally, I think SAMURAI RISING does pass this test, but I also think it’s an irrelevant question since this book has plenty of elementary school readers. See our Biography Roundup thread for some testimony.

      • The violence doesn’t bother me. Not at all. Especially in its historical context. Like you said, pales in comparison to some works of fiction. I’m actually really enjoying this book. Given the research Turner put into this, it’s quite the feat. The violence is just something to work through since presentation of information to children is part of the Newbery criteria.

        As for elementary readers, I used this book to “think aloud” in a workshop mini lesson yesterday. Just about every boy in my classroom has asked me if they can read the book now!

  7. Leonard Kim says:

    I have to admit that I too am not feeling inspired to re-read the book. If I did, it’d be solely for the fun of arguing with Jonathan :) But I want to reiterate it’s not a content issue for me personally. I can easily imagine a Newbery-worthy book on this subject. I don’t think this is it.

    We’ve had three adult readers here who’ve reported finding this a difficult read. I freely admit there are plenty of readers for whom this is not a problematic book. And I respect the idea that every kind of reader should have the opportunity to be a Newbery reader. But it’s not clear to me what audience is served if SAMURAI RISING were awarded despite some lack of consensus.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      First of all, Leonard, the book will not be recognized without consensus. As you know, in order to earn the Newbery Medal, 8 of the 15 people will have to vote for it with their first place vote. It probably needs a similar number of supporters for an Honor book. If that happens, however, it doesn’t mean that the remainder of the committee didn’t find it just as problematic as you do. Many times books that sharply divide readers are unable to build consensus among committee members, but sometimes they can. Not everybody on the committee has to feel warm and fuzzy about every book that is recognized. The audience that will be served by SAMURAI RISING is an audience that appreciates nonfiction storytelling of the highest caliber, that values excitement and danger and intrigue, one that is captivated by this window into a different time and place, one that will be inspired to learn even more. It is an audience that is underserved by the Newbery Medal, but that does not mean that it is a less deserving one.

      As I reread our original discussion on the Biography Roundup thread and your Goodreads review, Leonard, it became clear to me that this is simply not the book for you. You bring up some great points, but then too I also think you blatantly misrepresented the book at times.

      Ha! I dare you not to argue with me. 😉

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Aww, I certainly don’t intend to blatantly misrepresent any book. If I seemed to do so, it’s probably because I haven’t re-read the book so any statement I make is based on an April reading. The Goodreads review was based on a fresh reading with the book in hand, so I think I can stand by that. But sure, take my Heavy Medal comments with a grain of salt.

        The movie thought experiment is interesting, as it’s definitely R-rated in my head. I might make an analogy to the movie Deadpool. Superhero movies are always violent, but in the PG/PG-13 realm, the violence is stylized, like a dance. In Deadpool, definitely not for kids, the tone (like Turner’s?) is snarky and gleeful, and I think that attitude more than content per se is what makes it style-inappropriate for children. It’s very funny how we see things — I think the violence in The Golden Compass is very tame (I let my 7-year old daughter listen to the audiobook with me), while I made a conscious decision not to give SAMURAI RISING to my 11-year old boy.

        I may well have a blind spot about non-fiction for children. (For example, I’ve been in the minority respecting but not loving Sheinkin.) But there seems to be evidence that SAMURAI RISING is not clearly head and shoulders above even within genre if some people are putting forward WE WILL NOT BE SILENT or in my case IN THE SHADOW OF LIBERTY as non-fiction books we think are more worthy than SAMURAI RISING.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        When I read “decapitated head” I don’t see a picture of one in my head. In order for that to happen, Turner needs to visually describe it to me in detail which, of course, she never does. Pullman, on the other hand, paints a very vivid picture, dwelling on the goriest of details. Go back and read the battle scene between Iorek and Iofur, where the former tears off the jaw of the latter, then plucks his steaming heart out of his chest and eats it. I’m not criticizing THE GOLDEN COMPASS by any stretch of the imagination. I just find it amusing that you think the former glorifies violence while the latter does not.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        OK fine, I’m back from the library, with a copy of SAMURAI RISING (in the YA section in my library, btw). Give me a few days.

        Can’t believe I’m interrupting Five Children on the Western Front for this :) :)

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Oh, I don’t want you to reread it necessarily. I don’t think doing so will change your mind. Opinions converge and diverge frequently at the Newbery table. One minute you’re sitting next to an idiot; the next minute she’s a genius.

        I’ve been thinking about your objection to the tone of the book (since the content alone really doesn’t justify any objections). The tone strives for humor: snarky, sarcastic, glib, flippant–and I don’t mind that it’s paired with the violence in the book. But I wonder if it’s not unlike gallows humor or black humor wherein it just really rubs some people the wrong way . . .

      • Leonard Kim says:

        OK, I don’t think I will do a full re-read. However I am doing something which I am finding very interesting and that I recommend all of you (and the Newbery committee) try as well. I am comparing parts of The Tale of the Heike (translated by Watson, not one of the two used by Turner) to Turner’s own telling of the same events. This exercise is helping me articulate the “tone” issue I and perhaps some others are having. More later.

      • This is an interesting discussion because I think it’s really pointing to how different each reader’s experience is. I didn’t find THE GOLDEN COMPASS even remotely violent. Boring as all get-out, yes, but the violence didn’t register with me at all.

        I found SAMURAI excruciatingly violent, but the gorehound in me was delighted by the descriptions of decapitations and arm severing. I pictured everything in all its bloody, brutal glory. I found the violence almost gleeful and therefore thoroughly entertaining.

        It takes all kinds, I guess.

  8. I am of two minds with the authorial asides–sometimes they were just right, sometimes they took me completely out of the book. More of a problem for me were the tangents, such as referencing events that took place before the book’s main chronology began, say, that were hard to follow in a text that is already quite dense.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      Roger, these didn’t bother me, especially as many of them involved Yoshitsune’s extended family members. Others, such as digressions into Japanese sword-making, were too interesting to make me care about leaving the main narrative. Did it feel too info-dumpy to you?

  9. For me the authorial tone was so important for this title. I have zero interest in samurai, military history, and violence. Yet, I enjoyed this very much, including the end notes (they were fabulous). I found the brisk telling with those occasional side comments perfect in telling a complicated story for the intended audience. The asides, to to my mind, were judiciously used to highlight certain over-the-top situations (say the grandfather’s exploits). They acknowledge a young reader’s response. That is, they feel like someone nodding as a young reader looks up in shock after reading something especially over-the-top and having their response affirmed. I read the book months ago, but thinking about those side comments and Jonathan’s mention above of the way the violence is handled makes me see them linked. That is, for a young audience, the method of mentioning a decapitation, but not the specifics seems very intentional. I generally avoid works and films that have violence (e.g. Game of Thrones:) and so was surprised by how much I liked this.

  10. Leonard Kim says:

    I think where we might have been inclined to give full credit for making dusty history exciting, partial credit should actually go to the fact that the main source is already plenty exciting, “one of the great literary classics of Japan, the subject of countless plays, narratives, and films” per the preface of my copy of The Tales of the Heike.

    After this post, I’m going to quote the same scene from both Turner and my copy of the The Tales of the Heike so you all can get a sense of what I mean. Regardless of what one thinks of this particular translation, I hope it’s clear that Turner’s work here is 1) retelling a classic story 2) adding her remarked-upon chosen authorial voice (“appalled at such insanity” “he would become their new mascot” “didn’t mind being kidnapped by lunatics”) 3) adding educational commentary (here about social mobility.) Despite appearances, it doesn’t seem to actually be a Sheinkin-esque historical reconstruction. The end notes for these pages, a series of Ibids, indicate The Tales of the Heike is the only source for this scene. The mention of Washinoo’s later sticking with Yoshitsune (an example of Roger’s complaint about chronological jumpiness?) makes more authorial sense now that I know that it’s in the exact same place in The Tales of the Heike and that Turner is in fact doing a pretty straight retelling/adaptation.

    So I do think maybe some of the positive reaction to this book has to do with our unfamiliarity with the source. I have seen numerous comparisons of The Tales of the Heike to the Iliad. I think if the D’Aulaires, and Gareth Hinds, and Donna Jo Napoli, and George O’Connor, and Marcia Williams, and many others had taken their crack at this material first, we would view SAMURAI RISING very differently, and recognize that Turner has taken the hybrid role of Rick Riordan (her “snarky” tone seems to me quite similar to what one finds in something like Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes) and Mary Pope Osborne (who has done ancient Greek, but I’m thinking more of the spirit of her Magic Tree House Fact Tracker companion books.)

    So I’ve made my peace with this book. The way I see it, SAMURAI RISING is Percy Jackson’s The Tales of the Heike interspersed with supplementary non-fiction material, and this is no bad thing (though still not Newbery-worthy in my mind.) I do wish this were made clearer, maybe adopting the CLOUD AND WALLFISH approach of segregating story from the “Secret Files”, or just putting all of the scrupulous history in the end notes, or even the Magic Tree House approach of having two books, the narrative story and a separate Fact Tracker book. I personally think it a little counterproductive to have the trappings of a history book in the Sheinkin/Fleming vein where I still think the tone would then be a little weird and arguably inappropriate.

    • Leonard, I unabashedly love this book (more for the entertainment factor than anything), but…

      *slow clap*

      You, sir, are amazing in your critical eye. You make me think with every word you write.

    • This reminds me of CLAUDETTE COLVIN. I seem to remember a similar discussion. Those enamored by that text, were unfamiliar with the story and we debated as to whether or not that clouded our judgement when analyzing the “distinguished” features of the text. Hmm… Thanks for posting this Leonard!

  11. Leonard Kim says:

    SAMURAI RISING p.64-65

    As the sun faded they stopped to rest while Benkei went off in search of help. He returned with an old hunter and the hunter’s son, an eighteen-year-old named Washinoo.

    Yoshitsune asked the old man if they could descend to Ichi-no-Tani from the cliffs. The old hunter declared it impossible. Yoshitsune persisted: Did deer ever go down that way?

    The old man admitted that they did.

    ‘Why, it sounds like a regular racetrack!’ Yoshitsune said. ‘A horse can certainly go where a deer goes.’

    This was obviously not true, but nobody contradicted Yoshitsune. The hunter—apparently appalled at such lunacy—hastily claimed he was too feeble to help. He offered his son instead.

    Yoshitsune and his friends decided Washinoo would not only become their new guide—he would become their new mascot. They tied his hair up, samurai style.

    [non-fiction-y digression about social mobility]

    It seems Washinoo didn’t mind being kidnapped by lunatics. He remained with Yoshitsune until the very end.

    THE TALES OF THE HEIKE (trans. Watson)

    Flailing whips to left and right and urging their mounts onward, the men, finding that evening had overtaken them on the mountain path, dismounted and made camp for the night.

    Musashibo Benkei appeared with an old man in tow. “Who is this?” asked Yoshitsune.

    “A hunter who lives in these mountains,” Benkei replied.
    “Then he must know the region. Have him tell us what he knows!”
    “Why would I not know the area?” said the old man.
    “We are on our way to attack the Heike stronghold at Ichi-no-tani.”
    “You will never get there!” said the old man. “There are three-hundred-foot gorges, cliffs jutting out more than a hundred feet, and places a man on foot can’t even get by, much less men on horses! What’s more, the Heike have dug pits and set up spiked barricades—you’d have to deal with them as well!”
    “Can deer make their way through these places you speak of?”
    “Yes, deer can get through. As soon as the weather warms up, the deer from Harima go north to Tanba to bed down in the deep grass. And when it gets cold, the Tanba deer cross over to Inamino in Harima where there’s less snow and it’s easy to forage.”
    “Then there’s our riding path!” said Yoshitsune. “If deer can get through, there’s no reason horses can’t! Hurry and show us the way!”
    “I’m afraid it’s too much for an old man like me.”
    “You must have a son, don’t you?”
    “I do,” replied the old man, and brought forward a boy of eighteen named Kumao. Yoshitsune immediately had the boy’s hair put up in manly fashion and, since the father’s name was Washio no Takehisa, gave him the name Washio no Yoshihisa and ordered him to take the lead and guide the party through the mountains.

    Years later, after the Heike had been defeated and Yoshitsune had a falling-out with his brother Yoritomo and was attacked in the region of Oshu, this same Washio no Yoshihisa was among the warriors who died at this side.

  12. Leonard Kim says:

    One more comment to come full circle. Part of my initial negative reaction to SAMURAI RISING may be because I first experienced this story in what I am calling the Riordan approach. I didn’t have the “serious” literary frame of reference that made sense of the violence and tragedy and what made this story worth telling that I would have had the subject been the Trojan War or King Arthur. I have read that The Tale of the Heike is actually Buddhist in its attitude. (It opens with a meditation on the impermanence of all things, even the proud and mighty.) The Heike in the title are the Taira, the “bad guys” in Turner’s telling, and their collapse (partially brought on by Yoshitsune who doesn’t appear until the second half) is the real subject of the story.

    Turner writes, “While living in Japan I first read The Tale of the Heike and fell in love with the story the way I had fallen in love with the tales of King Arthur.” My own first encounter, in Turner’s “snarky” version, left me wondering what about the story there was to fall in love with. I think I would have appreciated SAMURAI RISING more if I had read someone else’s version of the story first.

    Anyway I want to close with a passage from my favorite book, The Once and Future King: “Even if you have to read it twice, like something in a history lesson, this pedigree is a vital part of the tragedy of King Arthur. It is why Sir Thomas Mallory called his very long book the Death of Arthur. Although nine tenths of the story seems to be about knights jousting and quests for the holy grail and things of that sort, the narrative is a whole, and it deals with the reasons why the young man came to grief at the end.”

  13. It’s interesting to me that Turner’s text seems less distinguished after reading the source material. I imagine that’s fair game for the committee to consider? But I’m not sure if it’s quite fair to be less impressed when I know she’s not making it up.

    Although I think this book is great for booktalking and sparking kids’ interest, I am still not convinced that it rises to the top. It’s a history book about which there’s not a whole lot of source material, of an interesting but violent time in history, not well-known to American kids. Perhaps it’s simply that I didn’t find it very interesting myself.

    (I’m going to start putting my full name on my comments because — I’m on the ballot for the 2019 Newbery Committee!!!! — Voting in March.)

    • Reading this over before posting, I realize I ended up completely off on a tangent, but it was sparked by this comment, so I’ll post it anyway.

      In this particular case, I knew from the outset that she wasn’t making it up because it’s nonfiction. But I think there is a place for the “drawing from source material makes me appreciate it less” conversation. I remember when EGG & SPOON came out a few years ago I read a review that focused its praise largely on the imagination of the author and how stunning the imaginative worldbuilding was, using as an example that Baba Yaga’s house ran around on chicken legs. The reviewer said something like “who else could have thought of something like that?” The obvious answer: generations of Russians who’ve been telling stories about that house for years. If the reviewer had known that many of the qualities about the book that he found most distinguished BECAUSE they were unusually imaginative were actually common motifs in a particular folklore, would that have changed how he viewed the book?

      Alternatively, it can make you appreciate a book all that much more. My son and I are reading through every Chinese folklore picture book that my library system owns, while at the same time slowly listening to WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER while on a weekly car trip, and a stronger familiarity with the stories is deepening my appreciation of the way that the author weaves all the stories together in a way that I didn’t have when I read the other two books.

      I think understanding the source material is important to understanding the way that an author brings their own unique talents to take an old idea and make it something uniquely their own and newly distinguished. While we obviously can’t directly compare this year’s work with an older text, we can use the knowledge of the genre’s conventions, common tropes, common motifs, etc to inform our understanding of why this particular incarnation is distinguished. It goes back a little to what Jonathan said elsewhere about whether a book shines to us because it is truly excellent or because it is just something we haven’t seen before.

    • Good luck, Sondy!!!!!

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I agree it would not be fair to compare the literary merits of Turner’s text to the source, just as it wouldn’t be fair to compare a book on the Trojan War to Homer. What this exercise really did for me was to change the way I assessed SAMURAI RISING — more similar to the way I’d assess Phelan’s SNOW WHITE as opposed to the way I usually assess non-fiction which normally do not use sources with inherent literary excellence.

      Also, I personally think Turner may not go far enough in emphasizing just how unreliable her literary sources are. She does say it, to her credit, but I feel her main narrative still projects an unwarranted confidence in believing this stuff actually happened in the detail presented. It’s interesting that she notes her deliberate omission of Tomoe Gozen because her entire existence cannot be corroborated even though she appears in The Tales of the Heike. If you don’t trust a person in a chronicle even existed, how can you seem so sure of all of these details of what people wore, did, and said? This goes back to my contention that my preferred approach would simply say, this is not a history or biography, but a retelling of a legend (with historical basis.)

      Another example is Turner’s explanation that The Chronicle of Yoshitsune is an unreliable source and so she will only use one plausible anecdote from it when recounting Yoshitsune’s childhood. But then, it seems to me, if I am reading the end notes correctly, that she is forced to use this work as the main source for all of the latter part of Yoshitsune’s life (as The Tales of the Heike stops with the end of the Gempei War). To be fair, there are indeed indications in the text that this part of Yoshitsune’s life is more uncertain (for example by prefacing a section with the comment that this is what storytellers say happened) but I think many readers, myself included, would not pick up on this, and believe this part of the biography is as authoritative as the more reliably documented parts before.

  14. Leonard Kim says:

    I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but my example was chosen randomly, and I thought I should give one that depicts violence. Also to be fair, I want to show an event that is derived from multiple sources.

    SAMURAI RISING (p.54) – mostly retelling from The Tale of the Heike, but the information in the last sentence does come from a different source (the Azuma Kagami Jonathan mentions above) and Turner’s endnote does discuss a disagreement with yet another source.

    The shadows lengthened and the winter air grew colder. Both men and horses were at their limits when yet another squad of warriors spotted Kiso and gave chase. A thin film of ice had formed across a sodden rice paddy, and Lord Kiso, mistaking it for solid ground, galloped his warhorse straight into it. The stallion sunk up to its ears in the mire. Kiso threw a glance over his shoulder–and an arrow plunged into his face.

    His head was taken back to the capital and hung from a tree beside the Kyoto prison gate.

    THE TALES OF THE HEIKE (trans. Watson)

    It was the twenty-first day of the first lunar month, and evening was approaching. The winter rice paddies were covered with a thin layer of ice, and Lord Kiso, unaware of how deep the water was, allowed his horse to stumble into one of them, In no time the horse had sunk into the mud until its head could not be seen. He dug in with his stirrups again and again, laid on lash after lash with his whip, but could not get the animal to move.

    Wondering what had become of Imai, he turned to look behind him, when one of the enemy riders who had been pursuing him, Ishida Tamehisa of Miura, drew his bow far back and shot an arrow that pierced the area of Lord Kiso’s face unprotected by his helmet. Mortally wounded, he slumped forward, the bowl of his helmet resting on the horse’s head, whereupon two of Ishida’s retainers fell on him and cut off his head. Ishida impaled the head on the tip of his sword and, raising it high in the air, shouted, “Lord Kiso, famed these days throughout all of Japan, has been killed by Ishida no Jiro Tamehisa of Miura!”

  15. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m weighing in a bit late on the latest round of discussion because I was out of the office yesterday and had left my copy of the book there. Lots of scattered thoughts here–

    LEONARD: I think where we might have been inclined to give full credit for making dusty history exciting, partial credit should actually go to the fact that the main source is already plenty exciting, “one of the great literary classics of Japan, the subject of countless plays, narratives, and films” per the preface of my copy of The Tales of the Heike.

    JONATHAN: I think you’ve set up a bit of a straw man fallacy, Leonard. While nobody is denying that this story is inherently exciting, I don’t know that any of us said that excitement is actually the reason it should win the Newbery Medal. I cited plot, setting, style, and presentation of information; Eric cited similar elements. I don’t think either one us believe it is deserving because it “makes dusty history exciting.”

    While I’m happy that you learned from THE TALE OF THE HEIKE’s preface that it is a Japanese literary classic, you need not have searched any further than SAMURAI RISING as Turner not only acknowledges as much, but clearly details in her notes the debt the narrative pays to its sources. Of course, most scholars use notes to direct readers to sources and/or to expound on tangential issues raised in the narrative. But it is impossible in a back matter of even 70+ pages to document exactly how the narrative is constructed; it’s simply not possible to give the reader an in-depth look into how all the bibliographical sources informed all the narrative choices. Turner is very clear in the main narrative and in the back matter about the challenges of this source material, and I think that only a careless reader could have missed that.

    I do think that the “newness” and “uniqueness” and “originality” of a piece of work can influence how we receive it upon a first reading, and that’s especially true when we learn things in a nonfiction book that we had no or little prior knowledge of. Rereading can and does mitigate some of that effect from the first reading. Personally, I found it just as distinguished on a second reading, but others could read it a second time and find the work diminishes in their eyes.

    I do agree that this discussion references our earlier discussion of CLAUDETTE COLVIN, but not necessarily because her story was “new” to most of us (although that point was brought up and argued), but rather some people thought that Colvin’s voice was so prominent in the narrative that either Colvin should have won the Honor instead of Hoose or that anybody who happened to have written a book on her would have won similarly won all of its accolades. Then, too, I wonder if there is an undercurrent to this discussion which suggests that nonfiction is “lesser” because it relies upon and incorporates other sources of information, whereas fiction is erroneously seen as emerging fully formed from the pen of the author, like Athena from the mind of Zeus.

    Earlier in this discussion, I expressed my frustration that you, Leonard, were blatantly misrepresenting the book at times but I didn’t want to get into comments made in the previous discussion or on your Goodreads review. I will now take exception to the way that you have characterized this book as merely a retelling, a work that relies almost exclusively on a single source with a smattering of nonfiction garnishes thrown in for good measure. The narrative passages that you yourself have selected categorically discredit this interpretation.

    On p. 64-65, you omit a section which you refer to as a nonfiction-y digression into social mobility, but you neglect to let us know that the section is almost as long as the passage that you have quoted. If I looked at the entire passage you’ve quoted, I’d probably guess that 60% of it relies on the HEIKE. I find it troubling that you’ve casually dismissed the other 40% as I would argue that the entire contribution of the text must be considered for the Newbery, yes, even the nonfiction-y parts–perhaps even more so because of them.

    On p. 53-54, if we look at the entire passage that is only a single page spread over two rather than the single paragraph you have fixated upon, then we can plainly see that Turner has cited *SEVEN* different sources, so while the HEIKE is obviously paramount among them, there are six additional sources that get mentioned for that single page. Again, the passage that you yourself has chosen undermines the interpretation of this as a simple retelling rather than as critical, scholarly work informed by multiple sources.

    I have lots more to say, but will probably have to push it out in chunks. Consider this the first chunk. :-)

  16. Eric Carpenter says:

    Agree with everything Jonathan wrote above. I would also note that since a book’s story is not part of the Newbery criteria (Interpretation of the theme or concept, presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization, development of a plot, delineation of characters, delineation of setting, and appropriateness of style) the argument that Turner borrows the story from HEIKE is irrelevant.
    When considering a book’s narrative all newbery discussion needs to be about the plot (ie the way in which the story is organized) and not about the story.
    Now if one was to go back to HEIKIE and find that Turner uses the same plotting and structure then that could be discussed at the table but then I would hope committee members would do the same work with the sources for Fleming’s Buffalo Bill and any other nominated biographies, regardless of how familiar, or not, the subjects might be to readers.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      To pinpoint narrative structure that does not derive from the HEIKE look no further than the numerous chapter-ending cliffhangers. Here are the concluding sentences for the first eight chapters, each of which propels the reader to turn the page and continue the story. Additionally many of the passages within the chapter, set off by long spears, also end in teasers and cliffhangers. This, as Eric mentions, is the organizational work that Turner has contributed to the narrative. I’m willing to bet these are not from the HEIKE.

      Kiyomori was wrong. Utterly, fatally wrong. (page 7)

      Eight centuries separate us from Yoshitsune. Yet it is easy to imagine the hope and fear in his heart as he launched himself into a dangerous world. (page 15)

      He rode south, alone, toward a land crumbling into civil war. (page 29)

      In the first month of 1184, Yoshitsune led three thousand samurai out of the shadows of history and into its full and fatal light. (p. 47)

      “All right, take them down! Do as I do!” Yoshitsune called. Digging his heels into Tayuguro’s dark flanks, he plunged over the edge. (p. 67)

      But Yoshitsune wasn’t finished. The Taira leader–Kiyomori’s son Munemori–had escaped. The Taira still owned a fleet of ships. They still controlled all of western Japan. And they still had Emperor Antoku and the imperial regalia. The Taira wouldn’t give up any of those things without a fight. (p. 75)

      Noritsune swept an arrow from his quiver, took aim, and let his hatred fly. (p. 91)

      • Leonard Kim says:

        This is true– your last example and 3rd to last example in particular break the source narrative.

  17. Leonard Kim says:

    Hi Jonathan and Eric,

    Here is the omitted section, which I left out because there was no counterpart in the comparative passage:

    SAMURAI RISING (p.64)
    In later centuries samurai status would be jealously guarded and limited to those born into the samurai class. In Yoshitsune’s time, however, a “samurai” was more loosely defined. Anybody who could afford the gear and the training could be a warrior. As someone who hunted for a living, Washinoo was probably already an excellent archer. If Yoshitsune gave the teenager a horse and armor and made him part of his band, then Washinoo was a samurai. More or less.

    Perhaps I am misjudging the readership. You seem to suggest it’s passages like this that make this book Newbery-worthy. I thought people liked this book for the narrative parts. From a plot/structure standpoint, I argued above that I personally would have preferred passages like this be relegated to the end notes (as she does in other instances) or another book entirely. I think that is relevant to the strict criteria (development of plot; clarity and organization of information presentation ) you and Eric invoke. My reading of Roger’s reservation is that he’s not sold about this either.

    p.53-54. I think I just have to disagree here. Azuma Kagami serves as a source for the last sentence (which I cited) and the first paragraph context. 2 other sources don’t directly inspire the main text and live only in the end notes: one explains the omission of Tomoe Gozen (which I cited) the other notes a disagreement of a source with the entire main narrative (which I cited). Finally 2 modern secondary sources are cited to support one non-fiction sentence about tactics using a football analogy. So I feel like I made a good faith effort to represent this section fairly. (I do only count 6 sources, but we could be talking about slightly different things.)

    In response to Eric, my argument would be that the passages I cited (and I could come up with many more) seem to indicate that for the narrative sections based on Tale of the Heike, my feeling is that Turner is following the source so closely, almost on a sentence basis, that perhaps she shouldn’t get full marks for plot, setting, character, etc.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      In regard to the SEVEN sources listed for page 53-54, you cannot really speak definitively to what came from where since you have only looked at one of them. What you really should do is look up all SEVEN of them in order to see what Turner has drawn from each of them. Am I not correct? If we’re going to give this book the BOMB treatment, then let’s do it right! 😉

  18. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t know that I want to get into a situation where we are pulling out numerous primary sources in an attempt to vet them. We did that with BOMB and I felt like it kind of got out of hand. You’re welcome to post more passages, but I’m not going to respond to them as I believe I’ve made my points already.

    I cannot speak for others, but I think parts like the one that you omitted are important because they provide context to the narrative and they demonstrate Turner synthesizing multiple sources, so, yes, I would say this passage is part and parcel of what makes this the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

    I find it odd that you want more of the narrative here to be relegated to the end notes, especially since you are such a fan of ARE YOU AN ECHO? That book essentially flips the script on how that book would most likely have been published. It probably would have been a translated collection of poetry with the poet’s biography relegated to tiny print in the back matter. And I think you can make a great case that it’s the poetry rather than the narrative that makes the book sing. I’m a fan, so I wouldn’t make that case, but I can easily see people bringing it up.

  19. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    FWIW, the author’s website has some great additional resources. They cannot be considered by the Newbery committee, of course, since they are not part of the book. But readers interested in learning more can check them out.

    http://www.pamelasturner.com/resources/yoshitsune_world.html

  20. Jonathan, I’m sorry, but I feel like you’re unintentionally creating somewhat of a straw man here missing what I think, is Leonard’s point (maybe I’m totally wrong though). The issue isn’t so much vetting the sources, it’s the originality of Turner’s writing. Many of the source passages Leonard is including are VERY similar to Turner’s passages.

    I’m not so sure Sheinkin is a good comparable either. Sheinkin researched documents of all kinds (interviews, articles, news clippings, etc) and used his research to craft a suspenseful story. Turner researched some suspenseful stories, and retold them. It’s not the same to me.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love SAMURAI RISING. I’ve come to that conclusion. I was fascinated by it and gripped. It was awesome and I thank Turner for bringing the story to this generation. It’s just that in a Newbery conversation, the “distinguished-ness” of the title is slipping for me as this discussion deepens.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      A straw man is when you create a fake argument (fake in the sense that nobody is arguing it) and then you rebut that argument. I believe that I am attempting to rebut Leonard’s very real argument that this is a retelling. Hence, no straw man. If we persist in reproducing THE TALE OF THE HEIKE bit by bit in this space then we are, in point of fact, vetting Turner’s sources for her originality.

      Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that I am willing to buy Leonard’s argument that this is a retelling, that we should put it in the same category as King Arthur, the Illiad, and other stories of that ilk. Here is the Newbery criteria that address these works.

      5. The term “original work” may have several meanings. For purposes of these awards,
      it is defined as follows:

      • “Original work” means that the text was created by this writer and no one else. It may include original retellings of traditional literature, provided the words are the author’s own.
      • Further, “original work” means that the text is presented here for the first time and has not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form. Text reprinted or compiled from other sources are not eligible. Abridgements are not eligible.

      So even if you want to argue that this is an original retelling of traditional literature, if the words are the author’s own, then this is eligible and attempts to discredit it on that basis alone are specious and disingenuous.

      • I only threw out the “straw man” term because you used it. It seemed that you were straying from Leonard’s “retelling” argument and turning it into a “synthesizing of research” argument, which I didn’t think was Leonard’s initial intent (although, maybe it was). Therefore, it seemed that you were creating a whole new argument to sidestep the point he was trying to make. Seemed straw-manny to me… Sorry.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      I think the bigger historiographical questions that this work begs are this: How do you tell a nonfiction story when you lack sources? Can you balance the responsibilities of an author of nonfiction in this situation, but still cater to the whims of your audience that craves the trappings of story? Should these kinds of stories even be told in this manner, and still pass as nonfiction? I think these are the big overarching questions that we are confronting with this book, and many of the little skirmishes are just manifestations of it.

      Let’s say that I want to write a biography of Jesus. What are my primary sources? How do I know that he actually lived, and that he said and did the things that we read in the Bible? Aside from the Bible, do we sources that prove his existence, let alone indicate any of his thoughts and deeds? Are the four Gospels reliable sources? If they all said Jesus walked on water, can I put that in my biography? If I wanted to follow through on my Jesus biography, I’d have to wrestle with the same kinds of questions that Turner would have to. How do we know what this person said and did with any degree of reliable accuracy?

      Let’s say I want to write a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Circumstantial evidence, the oral history of Sally Hemings’ descendants, and DNA evidence all suggest Jefferson fathered children with her. No single piece of evidence convicts Jefferson, but rather all of them taken together make it extremely probable. But there is no “primary source” that says Jefferson fathered children with Hemings. All of these aforementioned things involve a historian thinking outside the box.

      We don’t know what Yoshitsune did above and beyond what is listed in the two main sources, but we can question it and challenge it and evaluate it, and I appreciate how candid Turner has been about her process for doing so. I know this book involves more speculation than some people like in their nonfiction, but all authors have to make choices about what to include and what to exclude, and what the best way to tell their story.

      I will disappear for the weekend, but will rejoin the conversation on Monday.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Yes absolutely. Great analogy. We have books that are close Gospel retellings, freer adaptations of Bible stories, fictional unsourced revisionist works that make up stuff about a character named Jesus, and yes nonfiction books trying to shed light on “the historical Jesus” and his biography. And yes I think this affects how we evaluate the work. I’ve changed my evaluation of SAMURAI RISING because of my shifting opinion on what this book “is.”

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        I also wonder if our different reactions to some treatments of nonfiction also don’t touch upon the reasons why we read nonfiction. I don’t read nonfiction for information. Like ever. If I want information, I google it. I read nonfiction for pleasure, and sure some of that pleasure derives from a well constructed story, but some of it derives from following Turner in pursuit of the truth. I’m not terribly bothered by whether or not we actually attain the truth; I’m just happy to be along for the ride.

  21. Ok, since this conversation is probably nearing it’s close, I’d like to finalize my processing of this information…

    What exactly about this text is “distinguished?”

    The comments in support of this text (for the Newbery) have seemed to focus on defending issues like violence and whether or not this is a retelling. So all of that aside, what exactly makes this text “distinguished?” Which elements?

    1. Theme?
    2. Presentation of information?
    3. Plot?
    4. Characters?
    5. Setting?
    6. Style?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      I think SAMURAI RISING has a pretty good argument for being most distinguished in the category of Setting.

      In the five other criteria, I do think SAMURAI RISING made choices which are noteworthy and deliberate and in the service of quality of presentation to children, but of course I personally don’t agree with many of those choices.

      I do think we may not have discussed enough Turner’s specific take and speculations on Yoshitsune’s character, personality, and motivation.

      I do want to add that, possibly in disagreement with Eric, that my reading of the Criteria is that when “Committee members need to consider the following” my interpretation is that doesn’t mean that *only* those things can be considered. That we can in fact judge the book on many other dimensions not specifically named as long as they pertain to literary quality and quality of presentation to children and not specifically prohibited by the Criteria (e.g., didactic content and popularity.)

  22. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    SAMURAI RISING makes the ENYA shortlist!

    http://www.ala.org/yalsa/nonfiction-award

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