Manjiro by Emily Arnold McCully

Cover of Manjiro

Captain’s Log:

Module 12

Port of Call: Arnold McCully, E. (2008). Manjiro: the boy who risked his life for two countries. New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux.

First Lines: No Japanese ship or boat… nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoso acts contrary to this shall die.

Summary: This story is a biography of one of the few Japanese citizens to travel to the United States during the Tokugawa Shogunate’s period of inforced isolationism. Manjiro is a fisherman, and a boy, who is stranded on an island with several other men when their ship is caught in a storm. After some time, they are rescued by a U.S. whaling vessel and taken back to the states. The story details Manjiro’s travels through a foreing culture, his experiences as he finds a place for himself in America, and eventually his return to Japan at the risk of his life.

First Impressions: I’ve had a long-time interest in Japanese culture and yet I had never heard the story of Manjiro. Beautiful full-page pastel illustrations follow the storyline closely and display historical scenes from both the U.S. and Japan.

Suggestions for use: The story of Manjiro is one about overcoming unexpected circumstance, finding new ways to live and learn, and of the power of ‘home’ and belonging. I would use this story to teach about living in another country, or surviving in the face of adversity.

Illustration from Manjiro


School Library Journal:  “Gr 3–6— A fascinating episode from Japanese history, related in an oversize picture-book format. In 1841, while 14-year-old Manjiro and four men were fishing, their small boat was destroyed in a storm, and they were cast away on a tiny island for almost six months. Though they survived a drought and an earthquake, they feared for their lives. “For over two and a half centuries Japan had been closed to the outside world. Anyone who tried to return after leaving the country could be put to death.” They were finally rescued by a New England whaling ship. At journey’s end, Captain Whitfield took Manjiro home to New Bedford, MA. Whitfield married and bought a farm where the boy learned to plant, cultivate, harvest, and ride a horse—a skill reserved for samurai in Japan. Despite increasing homesickness, he attended school and graduated at the top of his class. In 1849, the California gold rush lured him to San Francisco where he collected $600 in gold dust in 70 days. Finally, after a nine-year absence, he headed back to Japan with two of the original castaways. When they arrived, government officials jailed and questioned them for seven months. He told them of America’s desire to trade and of railroads, telegraphs, drawbridges, and wristwatches. At last, he became an honored samurai. An author’s note gives background on Japan’s 250-year isolationist policy and how one curious, determined boy opened the door to the Western world. McCully’s realistic watercolors are striking against white backgrounds and show the contrast between traditional Japanese and 19th-century New Englanders as well as the tumultuous seas and perils of a fishing life. An exciting account of a pivotal period in U.S.-Japanese history.”

Auerbach, B. (2008). Manjiro. School Library Journal, 54(10), 134.

Kirkus:  “In this incredible true story, a poor Japanese boy, through fate and enterprise, bridges the cultural gap between Japan and America at a time when Japan was isolated from the world. In 1841, 14-year-old Manjiro and four other fishermen became castaways on a desert island for six months until rescued by an American whaling ship. The resourceful, adaptable Manjiro soon became Captain Whitfield’s favorite, eventually returning to Fairhaven, Mass., where Whitfield educated and mentored him. Initially regarded as a foreigner, the enterprising Manjiro became a popular, respected member of the community, but never forgot his family in Japan. He subsequently worked on a whaling ship and in the California gold rush to save enough money to return to his native land, where he was instrumental in teaching Japan about America. The historically rich text and the realistic watercolor illustrations capture Manjiro’s life and times—both in Japan and New England—making this a first-rate introduction to a relatively unknown young figure in Japanese-American relations. (author’s note, map, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 7-11)”

Manjiro. (2008, September 1). Kirkus Reviews.

14 Cows For America by Carmen Agra Deedy

Cover of 14 Cows for America

Captain’s Log:

Module 11

Port of Call: Deedy, C.A. (2009). 14 cows for america. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers.

First Lines: The remote village waits for a story to be told. News travels slowly to this corner of Kenya.

As Kimeli nears his village he watches a herd of bull giraffes cross the open grassland. He smiles.

He has been away a long time.

Summary: Kimeli is returning to his people in Kenya with a story from his life in New York City during the September 11 attacks. His story touches the people in his village who choose to make a gift to help those in America deal with the pain of the attack. The gift is 14 cows, a great treasure to the Maasai, given from one people to another in goodness and generosity of spirit.

First Impressions: The emotional impact of this story for me was unexpected. This is a simple, but beautifully illustrated story about a kindhearted people who have great empathy for others. Definitely a touching book.

Suggestions for use: Use this book to talk about relationships between cultures that are very different, or in a unit about September 11 and its effect on the world. This can be a great book for getting kids to think about people in other countries, and to find a mutual sharing of emotions and regard.

Illustration from 14 Cows for America

School Library Journal:

/* Starred Review */ Gr 2–5— Kimeli Naiyomah returned home to his Maasai village from New York City with news of 9/11 terrorist attacks. His story prompted the villagers to give a heartfelt gift to help America heal. Deedy and Gonzalez bring Naiyomah’s story to life with pithy prose and vibrant illustrations. Each block of text consists of a few short, elegant sentences: “A child asks if he has brought any stories. Kimeli nods. He has brought with him one story. It has burned a hole in his heart.” The suspenseful pace is especially striking when surrounded by Gonzalez’s exquisite colored pencil and pastel illustrations. The colors of Kenya explode off the page: rich blues, flaming oranges, fire-engine reds, and chocolate browns. Full-page spreads depict the Maasai people and their land so realistically as to be nearly lifelike. Gonzalez manages to break the fourth wall and draw readers in as real-time observers. The book’s only flaw is the less-than-concrete ending: “…there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort” is an important message, but not a particularly satisfying one for children. Fortunately, their questions will be answered by Naiyomah’s endnote, and it provides a fitting conclusion to this breathtaking chronicle.

Dash, R. (2009). 14 cows for america. School Library Journal, 55(8), 89.

Publishers Weekly:

A native of Kenya, Naiyomah was in New York City on September 11, 2001. In his and Deedy’s (Martina the Beautiful Cockroach ) lyrical account, he returns to his homeland and tells the members of his Maasai tribe a story that had “burned a hole in his heart.” The narrative avoids specifics and refers to the events of 9/11 obliquely as the villagers listen to him with “growing disbelief”: “Buildings so tall they can touch the sky? Fires so hot they can melt iron? Smoke and dust so thick they can block out the sun?” Until they read Naiyomah’s concluding note, children may not fully comprehend either his story or the villagers’ subsequent actions: the tribe elders bless 14 cows, revered in Maasai culture, and symbolically offer them to the American people to help them heal. Featuring luminous images of the Maasai in vivid native dress and sweeping African landscapes, Gonzalez’s pastel, colored pencil and airbrush paintings appear almost three-dimensional in their realism. A moving tale of compassion and generosity. Ages 6–10.

Staff. (2009). 14 cows for america. Publishers Weekly, 256(31), 45.

The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper

Captain’s Log: Module 4

Port of Call: Thomas, J.C. (2008). The blacker the berry. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

First Lines: Colors, without black,

couldn’t sparkle quite so bright…

Cover of The Blacker the Berry


This book is a collection of poems about skin color but truly are also about embracing who we are and what heritage has made us. Each poem speaks of our skin in vocabulary overflowing with  colors and tastes and smells. The poems are tied to a common theme of fruit/food as in, “I am red raspberries stirred in to blackberries”. And the ultimate message is that we are so much more than just the color of our skin, eyes and hair.

The poems are of medium length, and are accompanied by a full page illustration that portrays the character who is the topic of each poem. I thought every poem was lovely, skillfully crafted so that the book was interesting, vibrant, easy to read and full of sensory language that really made you feel the essence of each poem/person.

First Impressions: I’m not a big fan of reading poetry, so this book intimidated me a bit before I opened it. However, I was sucked in with the first few lines and flew through the poems in one sitting. I also loved the illustrations and spent time looking at each picture and picking out the elements that were representative of the poems they accompanied.

Suggestions for use: This is a book about celebration. This book’s message will most likely resonate loudest with African American children, but truly its message of acceptance and individuality can be a powerful message to all ethnic groups. I liked that this book taught the beauty that exists within all of us, and how we can wear our skin proudly and feel comfortable in who we are. Read this book to children who may feel they are not beautiful, and help them to point out the ways in which they are incredibly wonderful and special.


School Library Journal:

“Grade 1–4—The varieties of African-American ethnic heritage are often rendered invisible by the rigid construction of racial identity that insists on polarities. This collection of 12 poems makes the complexities of a layered heritage visible and the many skin shades celebrated. Read-aloud-sized spreads offer luminous artwork that complements the verses in which children speak of their various hues: “I am midnight and berries…” a child says in the title poem. In another selection, a boy recalls his Seminole grandmother who has given him the color of “red raspberries stirred into blackberries.” In “Cranberry Red,” a child asserts that “it’s my Irish ancestors/Who reddened the Africa in my face,” understanding that “When we measure who we are/We don’t leave anybody out.” The large illustrations match the lyrical poetry’s emotional range. Cooper’s method includes “pulling” the drawing out from a background of oil paint and glazes. With his subtractive method, he captures the joy of these children—the sparkle of an eye, the width of a grin, the lovely depths of their skin, and the light that radiates from within. This book complements titles that explore identity, such as Katie Kissinger’s All the Colors We Are (Redleaf, 1994).”

Pfeifer, T. (2008) School Library Journal Review for The Blacker the Berry. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from

Golem by David Wisniewski

Captain’s Log: Module 3

Port of Call: Wisniewski, D. (1996). Golem. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

First Lines: Within the beautiful city of Prague, fierce hatreds have raged for a thousand years. People of differing beliefs in God and nation have clashed violently here: Czech against German, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against Jew.

The cover of Golem


During a time when the Prague Jews are being persecuted by others a Jewish rabbi, Judah Loew ben Bezalel is searching for a way to bring relief to his people. He is given a dream in which a hand appears and writes the word ‘GOLEM’, a creature made from clay and brought to life with mystical Jewish words. Seeing this as a sign of an answer from God, Rabbi Loew sets out to make such a creature. He successfully brings the golem to life and charges it with protecting the Jews of the city from those who want to harm them. The golem is incredibly good at this task, and fiercely defends the Jews and destroys the attacking enemies. However, the golem is also a tragic figure, wistfully he just wants to watch the sunrise, and when the Jews are safe and the Rabbi prepares to disable the spell keeping the golem alive, the golem does not want to be turned back into clay. Nonetheless, he is dismantled with the promise that he will be brought back when the Jews need him once more.

First Impressions: Immediately I liked the heavy and dramatic illustration style of Golem. I also found the story to be intriguing as I had heard stories related to the myth of golems in other books. I did find parts of the book to be a bit scary or even depressing, so I wouldn’t recommend this book for very young children.

Other notes: The end of the book has a very informative section on the historical information this book was based on. This is a great resource for parents and children alike who want more information about the scenario described in Golem.

Suggestions for use: In addition to being a historical story, this book can also teach about the preciousness of life, the benefits and detriments of using another being as a ‘protector’, and the responsibility we have for the people in our care and our creations. This story could easily be a cautionary tale for anyone being persecuted or persecuting others.


Publishers Weekly:

“Elaborately composed cut-paper spreads give a 3D, puppet-show-like quality to a retelling of a Jewish legend. Rabbi Loew has a prophetic vision in 1580 when the Jews of Prague are accused of mixing the blood of Christian children into matzoh: he must create a Golem, “a giant of living clay, animated by Cabala, mystical teachings of unknown power.” Brought to life with apocalyptic explosions of steam and rain, the Golem seeks out the perpetrators of the Blood Lie and turns them over to the authorities. Thwarted, the enraged enemies of the Jews storm the gates of the ghetto, but the Golem grows to enormous height and violently defeats them with their own battering ram. Once his work is done, he pitifully (and futilely) begs the Rabbi: “Please let me live! I did all that you asked of me! Life is so… precious… to me!” Wisniewski (The Wave of the Sea Wolf) emphasizes the Golem’s humanity and the problems with his existence; instead of reducing the legend to a tale of a magical rescuer, the author allows for its historical and emotional complexity. The fiery, crisply layered paper illustrations, portraying with equal drama and precision the ornamental architecture of Prague and the unearthly career of the Golem, match the specificity and splendor of the storytelling. An endnote about the history and influence of the legend is particularly comprehensive. Ages 6-10. ”

Publishers Weekly (2006) Review of Golem retrieved September 9th, 2010 from