Warning: contains minor spoilers for the first book in the Young Samurai series (which you can buy for yourself right here).
The year is 2008. My friends and I had finally made the quantum leap to Secondary School or – as our Year 6 teachers so lovingly named it – Big School. Rumours circulating the soft grass of the playground denounced Big School as a scary place. Teachers had issued the warning that cursive was the only accepted way to write; if handwriting was any less joined, our poor, tiny hands wouldn’t keep up. Brothers and sisters from across the land often jeered that we wouldn’t handle the step-up from Key Stage 2 to 3. I was going to prove them all wrong. It was as if they didn’t know – or didn’t care – about my three 5s in the SATs. I was certain such a high score would make life much easier.
I have never been more wrong.
It took only a few hours of my maiden voyage into Big School to learn the shocking truth: that I was way out of my depth. Our first and only lesson of the day (likely to break the newcomers in easy) was English. Teachers greeted us with the news that we’d be reading a book – an entire novel – both as a class and at home. Forced, agaisnt our will. I was mortified. This was more horrifying than I could have imagined. Time stood still as I processed the information.
“Read? You want me to read? I have to…reeead?!” Clearly, my 11-year-old self was not the biggest fan of the written word. Ten years later, and I sit at my desk with a 2:1 in English and History – a degree subject that pretty much dedicates forty hours each week to reading. But how did I go from there to here? What changed?
What changed was that the newest issue of Pokémon World released just a few days later. Pokémon World was a magazine all about the titular anime and video game series – a subject that I adored. Clearly, I was okay with the idea of reading if it intersected with a topic I was invested in. Better yet, the fortnightly magazine came coupled with a bundle of free gifts – usually water pistols, notepads and pens. But this week, the company had attempted something new; they had attempted something unusual. They had included a sample chapter of Puffin‘s latest book offering:
Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior.
The novel, written by Chris Bradford and set in 1611, follows shipwrecked Jack Fletcher as he attempts to survive as the first gaijin samurai in Japan. As a white Christian, adopted by legendary swordsman Masamoto Takeshi, Fletcher faces a a great deal of racism, accusing him of being unworthy to wield a katana.
I’m not entirely sure what I knew of Japan before starting this book series. I watched a lot of anime on Cartoon Network without being able to comprehend that these series weren’t born in the USA, so it’s unclear whether I even knew of the East’s existence as a child.
Young Samurai made sure to change that.
I am Jack Fletcher
One crucial reason as to why I fell for this book series was due to the relatability of Fletcher’s experiences. No, I didn’t learn the ways of the warrior from 17th Century Japanese samurai, and I can’t relate to his journey from England across the ocean. But I can relate to the character. He is a 12-year-old boy who is starting to notice girls. He adores the new techniques he’s being taught. I was an 11-year-old boy. I was starting to notice girls. Most importantly, I had been practicing Taekwondo for 2 years by this stage, loving every moment of training. Perhaps I will one day be washed up on a Japanese coast, waiting to be rescued and trained by a Samurai, I thought.
Another aspect of Fletcher’s experiences that the young reader relates to are their identical experiences of the East. Much like Bradford’s typical readers, Fletcher had never before encountered Japan. As a westerner, this was his first contact with a civilisation that was totally different to the England that he left behind. In terms of foreign travel, I had only experienced the tourist-centric parts of Spain – and there’s only so much you can learn about new cultures from that kind of interaction. I was firmly routed in Fletcher’s shoes, and his experiences shaped my understanding of the East.
I learned a great deal about the existence of good and evil across the globe. It’s actually very important that Fletcher’s first contact with the Other involves an attack by ninja (yes, really: ninja), because it demonstrates to the reader that the protagonist resides in dangerous territory. The tone has been set: Fletcher’s time in Japan will not be an easy one. He will face challenges wherever he goes – especially in his quest to avenge his father, murdered by the infamous Dragon Eye. This experience prepares readers very well for the real world. While few will swear revenge against their enemies, they are taught to be on the lookout for danger in ever corner of the world. I, for one, am always looking behind for threats when walking home from a night-out, and assign credit for this to the Young Samurai series (common sense helps too, though).
You never know where ninja might be lurking.
However, Bradford also introduces children to the inherent goodness of all people. Yes, Fletcher does face great adversity, but he is also saved by an esteemed samurai. His rank informs readers that there are very wise, very good people in the East who will stick their necks out on the line for the benefit of foreigners. It suggests that we should be prepared to do the same. Readers should be wary of strangers, no doubt, but we should also be open to approaching the Other. They might not be as different as we might think.
Such remarks are especially potent in our current political climate. I cannot speak for the state of the world during the Financial Crash of 2008, when Young Samurai was first released, but a reader who consumes Bradford’s novel in 2018 will be doing so in a world affected by a depressing newsreel, which becomes more monotonous the longer we expose ourselves to it. To name-drop only a few depressing factors:
- A mysognist is the 45th President of the United States
- The United Kingdom is redefining its relationship with the European Union
- Families are being separated at American borders
- Most pertinent to this discussion: immigrants and refugees are treated like filth, rather than human beings.
We are a world divided. We have always been a world divided and we are going to remain a world divided – so says the realist inside of me. The realist believes that people with unsavoury views will always exist. There will always be racism, sexism, anti-semitism…the list goes on. It is futile to suggest that an alternative exists. But the idealist disagrees, declaring his love for a so-called Superstate, wherein the world’s citizens are free to remain in peace and harmony. There are no more wars. Famine does not exist. Happiness is defended against all odds.
Young Samurai teaches children to be idealists. Fletcher embodies the code of Bushido and defends Masamato’s son, Yamato, during a ninja attack. In-turn, Masamoto rewards him by training Fletcher at his samurai school. Readers are shown the benefits of adopting the attitudes and beliefs of another culture. Didactically, the book’s purpose is to inform children of the benefits of cooperation with others from all walks of life. Chris’ own politics may well differ from my own. Perhaps he did not intend for his book to resonate so clearly in a post-Trump/Brexit world. After all, how many childrens’ writers expect an English grad to analyse their works on a blog post-graduation?
Nonetheless, the fact that novels like these exist can only be for a force for good. It gives me hope that the pessimistic realist may one day subside, as we make room for the idealistic children that march towards the future.
Then and now
We mustn’t forget: those were the thoughts of a level-headed University graduate on a children’s book series. As a man with a degree in English and History, I’ve spent the last three years uncovering the political minutiae that’s hidden away between the pages. But still, I seem to have failed to answer my central question, posed in relation to my reading habits:
I detested reading as an 11-year-old. My parents tried every trick in the book to change my ways, but I refused to budge. Their first-born adored reading and remains able to recite Harry Potter, word-for-word, off the top of his head. Our parents couldn’t comprehend why I didn’t feel the same. My brother once commented that books were the kryptonite to my Superman. He wasn’t wrong. I once refused to read a book that had been set as a reading assignment in Primary School, much to my mother’s dismay. After much convincing I decided that I would, in fact, read – but only if I was allowed to sing the words.
I don’t know why, either, but it worked – albeit briefly. Case in point: for that Christmas, I was bought a Horrid Henry gift set containing three books, but none of them appealed. I was a lost cause. I would never enjoy reading. I’d be cursed to never experience the works of Shakespeare in their entirety.
To fully answer the question – What changed? – would go beyond the scope of this post. I’d need to dedicate an entire new series to that topic to cover it all. But one deciding factor was, of course, Bradford’s seminal novel. Once I had finished the sample chapter, I craved more. The unwrapping of the full-length novel occurred on my birthday, thus commencing a long love affair with literature. Little did I know, it would lead me down a path towards a degree. I really have to thank Bradford for my recent friendships, too, as I never would have met any of them if I hadn’t attended University. So here it is:
Thank you, Chris.
I haven’t read that first novel for many years now. Part of me doesn’t want to disturb the memories that I have accrued over the past ten years. I don’t want to risk taking off my nostalgia goggles, to discover that Young Samurai isn’t all its cracked-out to be.
To close, I would highly recommend Bradford’s work. Yes, it was written for children, but so was Harry Potter – yet people are drawn there no matter their age. You should do the same for this series of novels. At 21 years of age, it is by no means a challenging read, but it is a fantastic exploration of culture, filled with adventure, combat, and an eternal war between samurai and ninja. If you’re interested in any of that, or you’re interested in Japan, or 17th Century literature, then I cannot recommend Young Samurai more.
You will not be disappointed, and may just learn a thing or two.
If you want to remain up-to-date with Chris Bradford’s work, you can follow him on Twitter @YoungSamurai and like his Facebook page here. The eighth book in the Young Samurai series was released in 2012 but, following support en masse from his fans, Bradford will be releasing the ninth and, presumably, final novel next year.
Let me know if you’ve read his books already, or plan on getting started!
Hardly Nostalgia used to be the name of this series, but I’ve since changed it to Book Club. My original intention with Hardly Nostalgia was that it would be a series of blog posts wherein I revisit content that I was interested in as a child, and discuss them with you.
Today’s post discussed the impact of Chris Bradford’s Young Samurai series – specifically the first novel, The Way of the Warrior – and considered how my developing, 11-year-old brain was affected by his work. It also considered the purpose of the series from the analysis of my mind as a 21-year-old English & History grad.
Under the old Hardly Nostalgia banner, it was my intention that not every post will adopt this framework. I hoped to engage with other figures in pop culture, from TV shows like Breaking Bad and anime such as Dragon Ball Z, to movies, like the seminal Spider-Man 2, as well as other novels, poems, and the rest.
Let me know if you want me to continue this style of content under a new banner, and if there’s any type of text you’d like to see me cover.