Heart of a Samurai Book Poster Image

Heart of a Samurai



Fish-out-of-water adventure swimming with historical detail.

What parents need to know

Educational value

This well-researched story is a great primer on a specific time and place in history, giving a sense of the United States and Japan in the larger world. It paints a vivid portrait of the whaling industry, as well as life in early 19th-century America. A glossary, historical notes, and suggested reading further enrich the book.

Positive messages

This book teaches that even a humble fisherman can help change the world. Curiosity, aspiration, and an open mind lead Manjiro to speak up, to engage with his rescuers, and to explore a new land. Racism and discrimination are shown to be the refuge of the ignorant.

Positive role models

Manjiro embodies both traditional Japanese values (such as a group work ethic and respect for authority) and touted American ones (ambition, self-reliance, individualism). He’s a wide-eyed traveler, eager to soak up all he can. Captain Whitfield is an idealized authority figure, fair and noble.


Drunken sailors gang up on two of the Japanese fishermen, threatening them with a knife and trying to rob them. Manjiro deeply fears a shipmate will try to harm him and takes to hiding to ensure his safety. Some of the descriptions of the whale hunt and processing can be intense. A schoolyard bully harasses Manjiro and later takes a beating from his own father.

Not applicable

No curse words, but there are a few ethnic slurs, appropriate to the story, including "slant-eyes" and "butter stinkers."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Sailors become drunk and threatening while on shore.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this Newbery Honor book is based on fact and dense with historical interest, delving into Japanese isolationism, the whaling industry, and prejudice and racism in both the U.S. and Japan in the early 1800s. The author is fair and balanced in her portrayal of brutal whaling practices as well as often-clashing cultural values in Japan and the U.S. Examples of violence and racial prejudice are minimal, and always in service to the story.

What's the story?

Stranded on a barren island after their ship sank in 1841, five Japanese fishermen find themselves rescued by an American whaling ship. Manjiro, 14, and his crewmates thought non-Japanese were barbarians and monsters, but Manjiro gives himself over to the adventure. Unable to return to Japan, he learns English and the ways of the Western crew, and settles briefly in New England as the captain’s adopted son. Manjiro – believed to be the first from the closed country of Japan to visit America – enters school, confronts racism, and eventually heads west in search of gold to finance an attempt to return to Japan. Through it all, the boy who thought his fantasy of becoming a samurai was beyond reach proves himself worthy of the honor.

Is it any good?


Based on the true story of Manjiro’s travels, this story offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the early 19th century. It touches on American aspirations as a global power as well as Japan’s isolation. The author's descriptions of life on a whaling ship feel particularly authentic, and she ably uses Manjiro’s adventures to touch on economic, cultural, and political themes.

Readers may find thin characters more educational than interesting, and dialogue overstuffed with eager historical notes. Indeed, the characters never quite get off the page, but the broader tale itself is captivating. Like Manjiro, readers will find much to pique their interest, and the author helpfully recommends plenty of extra reading. The book is beautifully presented, with drawings by Manjiro, quotations from Hagakure: Book of the Samurai, and extensive supporting material.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the difference between historical fiction and biography. Why do you think the author chose to write Manjiro's story this way?

  • Manjiro forever lived under a “cloud of suspicion” after his homecoming, the author says. By the novel’s end, he seems restless, fully at home neither in America nor in Japan. How do you think his experience compares to that of immigrants today?

Book details

Author:Margi Preus
Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:August 1, 2010
Award:Newbery Medal and Honors

This review of Heart of a Samurai was written by

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are conducted by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.


Our star rating assesses the media's overall quality.

Find out more

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

About Our Rating System

The age displayed for each title is the minimum one for which it's developmentally appropriate. We recently updated all of our reviews to show only this age, rather than the multi-color "slider." Get more information about our ratings.

Great handpicked alternatives

For kids who love history and historical fiction

External sites

Top advice and articles

What parents and kids say

See all user reviews

Share your thoughts with other parents and kids Write a user review

A safe community is important to us. Please observe our guidelines

Parent Written bymasemomof2 December 17, 2012

MUST read!

it is a fantastic book, based on a true story. great role model who overcomes barriers of prejudice, language and social status. there is a little violence as she describes whaling practices. but it is mindful of the audience's age and above all still appropriate. My daughter and I picked it for our book club and we all loved it, we both felt we learned something new. It is a fantastic introduction to the topic of immigrants, different cultures, a lot to discuss with your kids.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Kid, 10 years old February 18, 2016

Great adventure!

I liked this book because it was interesting and exciting. You will learn about the whaling life, American history, and Japanese culture. I liked the way the author uses original analogies and paints a picture in your mind. Here is one of my favorites, 'The stream chuckled along untouched by any such unpleasantness'. I would say that this book could be read by younger children but the vocabulary can be challenging.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Kid, 10 years old February 18, 2016
I liked this book because it was exciting and educational . I learned about many different cultures and the whaling industry . Also the author painted a picture in your mind by using many great metaphors , smiles and other analogies. Two of my favorites were 'the sea and sky were velvety' and ' the night was embroidered with a million glittering stars'. The vocabulary is challenging but younger kids could read this with an adult.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models


Did our review help you make an informed decision about this product?