From the Publisher
"brave effort to draw martial arts film and game fans...Koji...finds himself held captive in a hidden rebel camp" KIRKUS REVIEWS Kirkus Reviews
"Both rousing and thoughtful...opens an unfamiliar time to most readers and offers an accurate look at these secretive warriors." SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL School Library Journal
"...gripping elements of daring spy missions and a climactic midnight confrontation...Wit and trickery rather than violence win the day." THE BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"gripping...action-packed, atmospheric...readers will be made curious about Japanese culture and history as they become ensnared in this adventure." PUBLISHERS WEEKLY Publishers Weekly
"...for readers who like action stories... also delivers enough ninjutsu philosophy to give older middle-graders something to think about." BOOKLIST Booklist, ALA
"a popular subject that will be enjoyed by young teens exercising their ninja powers" VOYA VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)
Whitesel's (Rebel: A Tibetan Odyssey) often gripping historical novel explores a 12-year-old peasant boy's adventures as a ninja in Japan's Iga Mountains in 1545. In the action-packed, atmospheric opening pages, Koji's more adept twin, Taro (twins were considered unlucky in feudal Japan), rescues a master dye maker from drowning. The master rewards him with an offer to apprentice-but, for mysterious reasons, their parents substitute Koji. Homesick Koji fails miserably at the tasks set him and is sent home, shamed, but when he sees how angrily Taro reacts to his return, Koji runs off to the forest, where a young warrior kidnaps him and brings him to the ninja mountain training camp. Whitesel demonstrates how Koji's initial distrust and fear of the ninja gives way to an attempt to prove himself loyal to them. Finally he embarks on ninja training, learning not only to wield weapons and disguises but to develop his senses and to focus his energy, or ki. "A ninja's first priority is to win without fighting. Preparation. Stealth. Deception. Subterfuge." Whitesel highlights the ninja code of honor as the characters attempt to rid the kingdom of firearms. Despite a few loose ends, readers will be made curious about Japanese culture and history as they become ensnared in this adventure. Ages 10-14. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Koji, a poor farm boy in feudal Japan, is kidnapped by a secret clan of ninjas who live in the forest, and trained to be one of them. He survives the difficult schooling in stealth and fighting techniques, but he misses his family, and he is disappointed when the special weapon chosen for him turns out to be a flute. But clever, brave Koji manages to use his weapon well when he is chosen to creep into Crane Castle, and he is delighted to get revenge there on cruel Lord Udu, who had burned down Koji's town when it was not able to pay the rice tax. Koji even manages to be reunited with his mother and twin brother, and he and his twin work together to prevent Lord Udu from bringing guns into their valley. Lots of details of a ninja's training (did you know they learned to dislocate their joints at will, in order to hide better?) and Koji's spunky nature and dangerous escapades make this riveting reading for younger YAs fascinated by the mysterious and ever-popular ninja. An author's note at the end explains the historical facts on which Koji's story is based, and there is a glossary of Japanese terms. KLIATT Codes: JRecommended for junior high school students. 2004, Houghton Mifflin, Clarion, 256p. bibliog., Ages 12 to 15.
Taking a step into the past and a nation far across the seas, Cheryl Whitesel captivates her audience with a tale of ninja clans and samurai warriors. Koji, a Japanese twin, is desperately searching for belonging and acceptance in a place where twins are thought of as a sign of misfortune and disgrace. Through a strange twist of fate, a secret ninja clan captures Koji. Forced to endure ninja training, Koji must learn to accept this new ninja lifestyle and forget his family at home or die. I was intrigued by the ninja history intertwined throughout the text. Whitesel combines fact with fiction, giving her readers a glimpse of what ninja life may have been like. My favorite element of the novel was the relationship of Koji's family. The readers are able to examine sibling rivalry, as well as discover the importance of family and belonging. 2004, Clarion Books, 252 pp., Ages young adult.
Koji's "blue fingers" come from the dye that is almost his fate. Born a twin in feudal Japan, he is apprenticed to a master dye maker when his parents substitute Koji for his favored twin brother whom the dye maker demanded. Twins are unlucky. Cast out by the dye maker, he is captured by a secret society of "grass" people (ninja) who at first distrust him and then train him as one of their own. Once accepted as a member of this secret band, he partakes in derring-do against a corrupt local warlord. The plot fairly leaps from action to more action and throughout Koji remains a static character, buoyed on the winds of his destiny. The ninja are more fully realized, and their ingenuity makes for fun reading. Need to get into a tight spot? Try dislocating your limbs at will. Younger readers looking for ninja action will be satisfied, but fans of the more sophisticated writing of Lensey Namioka and Lian Hearn will be disappointed by lackluster character development and obvious dialogue. By contrast, the author's note, glossary, and bibliography succinctly place the book in its historical context and provide a rich resource for readers interested in this era. This book is a serviceable offering about a popular subject that will be enjoyed by young teens exercising their ninja powers. VOYA CODES: 3Q 4P M J (Readable without serious defects; Broad general YA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 2004, Clarion, 256p.; Glossary. Biblio., $15. Ages 11 to 15.
Koji and Taro are twins living in feudal Japan, a time of ninjas and samurais. A case of mistaken identity takes Koji away from his home, where he lived in the shadow of his more capable twin, and when he is abducted by ninjas he is certain that his death is close at hand. Fortunately for Koji the ninjas decide to train him and he is faced with many tests and challenges that he must overcome in order to reunite with his family. This story is entertaining and fast-paced. Boys and girls alike will enjoy this novel about an insecure child who flourishes under adversity. Koji's incessant clumsiness and lack of confidence can be annoying but his perseverance keeps him from being tiresome. The author lived and traveled in Asia and her research seems sound. Various Japanese words (definitions are provided in the glossary) are scattered throughout the text. 2004, Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Company, Ages 10 to 12.
School Library Journal
Gr 5-9-An adventure set in 16th-century Japan. Because twins are believed to be bad luck, Kojiro and Taro's parents have always tried to conceal the fact that they have two sons, not one. After Taro saves the life of a master dye maker, the man wants to reward his rescuer with an apprenticeship. The boys' parents send Koji instead, hoping the dyer will not notice the difference, but the artisan soon grows impatient with Koji's clumsy ways and sends him home. Shamed, Koji runs away and is captured in the forest by people who call themselves "grass," but who are, as he soon realizes, ninja-a mysterious group with impressive skills who have set themselves up against the ruling samurai. Under the demanding tutorial of his captor, a boy only slightly older, and other instructors, Koji grows beyond his fears and self-pity, develops a more accurate vision of himself and his society as well as a strong body, and finally becomes the ninja Blue Fingers. The author throws light on Koji's sense of failure, as well as the historical roots of the ninja and their true-rather than pop culture-goals. The plot is filled with twists and turns involving hidden identity, warfare, and the ways in which a warlord's superstitions can be used against him. Both rousing and thoughtful, this novel opens an unfamiliar time to most readers and offers an accurate look at these secretive warriors.-Coop Renner, Fairmeadows Elementary, Duncanville, TX Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
In a brave effort to draw martial arts film and game fans, Whitesel chronicles a young farm lad's involuntary entry into a clan of astonishingly adept warriors. Having botched a chance to make good as a dyer's apprentice, young Koji runs despairingly into the forest and finds himself held captive in a hidden rebel camp. Slowly, Koji falls under the spell of these seemingly superhuman ninja (they never use that word, but call themselves "grass"), who can dislocate their own joints at will and perform other eye-popping physical feats. Gradually developing into a strong, clever fighter himself, he joins them in a bizarrely convoluted plot to weaken the local daimyo by tricking him into rejecting the firearms recently introduced by European traders. However, the author's long, slow setup may lose readers attuned to instant and continual action, and her focus on Koji's emotional landscape and maturation is so close that the rough-hewn plot never acquires much suspense or sense of danger. Still, worth a try with readers of Lensey Namioka's samurai mysteries, or (changing countries) Da Chen's Wandering Warrior (2003). (glossary, historical note, two booklists) (Fiction. 11-13)
Read an Excerpt
The next morning, Spider laid out the sketchy map of the castle on the grass. “Add anything you noticed,” he commanded. Koji gazed at the paper in silence. If Spider would like to know about anything he saw, surely he would most like to know about the new weapon. But what good would it do him to reveal the musket now? Yet there might come a time when the information would be precious.
Koji touched his arm where Spider had cut it. Clear Mist had bandaged the wound the night before, but it was still sore. “Why do you want to know what I saw in the castle, anyway?” Koji asked, although he thought he knew the answer. “Why do you think?” Koji was disgusted. He had hidden his firecrackers in one of the storeroom caves, but he wished he had them now. He wanted to light one and push it up Spider’s nose. “You were in the castle with me, hidden somewhere,” he said. “So think for yourself what the layout is like. I won’t help you.” It took all his courage to roll the map shut. “Think hard before you make threats you are powerless to carry out,” said a rasping voice from behind. Koji and Spider spun around together. Dark Fire sat on a nearby stump with his walking sticks on the ground beside him. On his knee, he balanced his pet cricket in its bamboo cage. He held one end of a long thread. The other end was tied around the leg of a crow with clipped wings. It hopped around, pecking at the ground. Koji and Spider waited for Dark Fire’s attention while he gave the string a harsh tug. He chuckled over the crow’s antics as, cawing, it fell and fluttered its wings in a panic. After it finally calmed down, Dark Fire tugged the string again. “I am becoming impatient with you, farm boy,” he told Koji. He kept pulling the glossy bird closer. When it was near, he gently slid open the door of his pet cricket’s cage. He tipped it up slightly and the cricket slid out onto the grass in front of the crow.
For a moment, the crow and cricket both stood motionless. Then the crow jerked its head forward and snapped up Dark Fire’s beloved pet. With a twitching leg sticking out of its beak, the bird hopped away. Its head bobbed as it swallowed.
Dark Fire slid shut the door of the empty cricket cage. He folded his hands and turned back to Koji, who was stiff with horror. Dark Fire’s eyes were flares as he rasped, “Unroll the map.” Koji was afraid to disobey, yet his hands were paralyzed. “It is time for you to become one of us.” “I’ll try to be like you,” Koji said with a frantic bow.
Dark Fire looked down at his walking sticks. “Not like me. You are young and strong enough to complete missions, so you will begin as a genin like my grandson.” He motioned toward Spider. “Forgive my impoliteness at suggesting that I could be like you, our leader,” Koji said, still trying to please the old man.
But Dark Fire’s cheek twitched in irritation. “Groveling disgusts me. And I am not the true clan leader—the jonin. His identity is secret.” “But you alone communicate with him, Grand-father,” Spider said proudly.
“That is my role as the number-one chunin.” Looking down at his weak legs, Dark Fire sighed. “After all, I cannot be a training master like the other chunin.” Koji glanced at the empty cricket cage and the tame crow nearby. It hopped around, trying to bite off the string that was tied around its leg and snaked across the ground toward Dark Fire. Then he scanned the clearing full of people. Does our jonin live here in the camp? he wondered. Does he know me? But he glanced at the tail of the string, near Dark Fire’s foot, and didn’t dare ask. Dark Fire seemed to guess Koji’s thoughts. “You are unwise to wonder who our jonin is,” he said. “Now draw!” While Dark Fire watched, Koji forced his trembling hand to draw a few rooms, stairways, and large jars on the map. He pointed out the hall where O Kei had talked about a network of threads. But he paused before drawing the secrecy room, and as he held his hand motionless, Dark Fire nodded his approval. “You will be a ninja until the day you die,” Dark Fire said, and Koji laid down the brush. If Dark Fire was satisfied with what he had already drawn, perhaps it was safest to stop. “Continue being forthright with me and your death day may remain distant.” Dark Fire gazed at Koji’s bandaged arm. When Koji didn’t explain the injury, the old man said, “Spend today with my grandson. If you learn a few things from him, tomorrow’s challenge may be eased slightly. You see, you are ready to begin training.” “Training? I don’t want—” Dark Fire held up his hand for silence. “How long will you remain a bird who walks everywhere on its scrawny legs, never daring to try its wings? You will bbegin training tomorrow, whether you wish it or not. However, before you start, let me caution you that mastery of weapons and your arms and legs wwwwwill only take you so far along the ninjutsu path. Our way is more about caring for each other, compassion, integrity.” Dark Fire reached down for the end of the string. When he snapped it ever so slightly, the crow hopped and fluttered its way back to him. “You see, competence and wisdom are found on different life journeys. One does not lead to the other.” “Is that what I want?” Koji murmured. “Wisdom?” As if the crow were a baby, Dark Fire reached down and lifted it in his arms. “It’s what you should want.” He motioned for Spider to take over with Koji and hobbled away with the crow perched on his shoulder. “Watch this.” Grinning, Spider picked up the map of the castle, folded it in half, and tore it down the middle.
“What are you doing?” Koji cried.
“Don’t you realize we know every inch of the castle? We didn’t wonder about the castle at all, but we needed to test how you would respond when we asked for your help. Would you tell us the truth about what you saw or try to mislead us? Didn’t you guess that your assignment was not what it seemed?” “No. How did I do?” “Come on, let’s fight.” With his chest puffed out importantly, Spider hoisted Koji up and pushed him to one of the sparring circles. He sprang into the air as flexibly as a shadow, raised his fists as he landed, and began hitting out to warm up. Dancing just out of reach, he lightly slapped Koji’s cheeks. “Come on, peppercorn, show me your spice!” “No!” But Koji struck out with both fists. The right connected, but it didn’t slow Spider, whose fist exploded in Koji’s face. Koji fell and sat dazed. Blood dripped into his mouth. Gulping, he pinched his nostrils together. “Weak little paddy frog,” Spider muttered, kicking at Koji. He drew in a breath, then placed the sole of his left foot up against the inside of his right knee. With the palms of his hands together, he raised his arms over his head and stood motionless. He chanted under his breath with his eyes turned upward, then let his head fall onto his chest. He sprang out of position. “You’re not ready for tomorrow,” he warned Koji before trotting away.
Koji sat down near a scaling wall and, feeling glum, watched Raven Wing, Minnow, and Sky swarm up and down. Helped by clawlike pieces of metal strapped to their hands, they looked as comfortable as flies on the vertical surface. Will Dark Fire expect me to do such impossible things? he wondered anxiously. “Koji.” He turned to find Falcon kneeling behind him, looking as if he wanted to talk. But Spider ran up and grabbed Falcon by the shoulder as if to pull him away. Shaking him off, Falcon cast an indulgent smile up at him. “It won’t hurt if I talk to him, Spider. You don’t understand how he feels.” Gently, he added, “Koji, things will go easier for you if you accept being here.” Koji gazed at Falcon, realizing that if any ninja could become a trusted friend, it was him. He snatched a leaf off the ground and tore it to pieces. “I can’t—I should be with my family.” “See? He says he refuses,” Spider said as he sauntered off. “Falcon, you’ll make him soft!” He snorted over his shoulder.
“You say you want to be with your family,” Falcon said to Koji. “Don’t you realize that if you ever see them again . . .” “Don’t say ‘if’!” “When, then. Won’t they be impressed to see you changed—so strong and competent?” Koji glanced up, shocked and interested. He remembered a time, years ago, when a traveling peddler had been surprised to learn that he and Taro were twins; he assumed Koji was younger.
“No,” Papa had said. “Koji is moments older. But he’s immature compared to his brother, and that fools you. Look, can’t you see that they’re exactly the same height?” Later that night, Papa and Mama murmured together, glancing at the twins now and then. Finally, Papa announced, “In the past, I’ve told you to try to act more grown up, Koji. But never mind. This way is best. Perhaps superstitious strangers won’t even guess that you’re twins.” Now as he gazed at Falcon, Koji wondered what it would be like to go home as a trained warrior, to meet strangers who assumed he was older than Taro. “I don’t know whether . . . ,” Koji began. But was Falcon really someone in whom he could confide? He took in a deep breath. “I don’t know whether my family could ever be proud of me again. I did . . . something bad.” “Mistakes are normal. Part of being alive.” “But I let down my whole family.” “Still, Koji, it’s a hard heart that won’t give the person he hurt a chance to forgive him.”
Copyright © 2004 by Cheryl Aylward Whitesel. Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.