Saturday, March 5, 2016

Gareth Hinds & Samurai Rising

Gareth Hinds has won critical acclaim for his elegantly-illustrated graphic novel adaptations of classic stories, including Shakespeare's Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet, The Odyssey and Beowulf. But Gareth's latest book, Samurai Rising, is something quite different. For one thing, it's not a classic -- just yet. Another difference is that it's not a graphic novel; Gareth provided illustrations for the beginning of each chapter, as well as a wonderfully "in your face" cover that just begs kids to pick up the book to find out more.

Gareth came to my library recently to talk about the book, which is published by Charlesbridge and aimed at ages 10 up. Samurai Rising already has received four starred reviews from professional journals: Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Written by Pamela Turner, Samurai Rising tells the story of -- as the subtitle notes -- The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune. The phrase "epic life" actually might be a bit of an understatement. Just look at the back cover, which gives fair warning about the contents of the book: "Warning: Very few people in this story die of natural causes." Yes, that's true, but it's also true that readers ages 10 up will be riveted by Pamela's meticulously-researched text, which combines humor, drama and an ironic writing style that allows readers to see parallels between Yoshitsune's long-ago life and their own. Here's an example: "... Yoshitsune, an unskilled teenager... wanting to be a warrior! It was like a boy who had never played Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees." Or this: "When your half-brother sends assassins to kill you, it's a strong hint that your relationship is beyond repair." As The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books said of Samurai Rising: "Hand this to long-faced kids whining that they 'have to write a history report.'"

Gareth's black-and-white chapter illustrations further expand the the interest and energy of the book's text. Done in a loose brush-and-ink, his artwork is both stunning to look at and helpful to understanding the bloody world of Yoshitsune. Gareth also did several maps that are found throughout the book and really help readers keep track of the action. In fact, it turns out that Gareth was the perfect choice to illustrate the book. As Gareth told us at the library event, he had done some karate and aikido in his childhood and studied Japanese culture and language during high school and college. In 1990, Gareth visited Japan, where he met a famous Japanese swordmaker; swords, of course, play a key role in many parts of Samurai Rising. In addition, Gareth has been seriously practicing aikido for 15 years, and is a third-degree black belt. One more interesting connection: in college, Gareth actually did an illustration project on Yoshitsune, so he already knew the basics of the warrior's story.

At the library program, Gareth talked about the process of illustrating Samurai Rising, showing us pages from his sketchbooks where he did rough pencil sketches for each chapter. Once he and the book's art editor, Susan Sherman, decided on a sketch, Gareth then went to work with his brushes. As he describes the process in a fascinating post on his website: "In order to do a loose brush painting, I actually needed to work out a fairly precise drawing, often with more information in it than the finished illustration would have. Then I put the drawing on a light table and painted over it, laying down the solid blacks first, then the grey tones. I used some carefully distressed, bristly brushes I’ve cultivated over the years (a good inking brush, as it ages, tends to lose its ability to keep a sharp point, but sometimes gains other magical qualities!)."

I'll admit that I was a bit reluctant at first to read Sanurai Rising because I had already heard about the high body count. Once I began reading, however, I was totally hooked, both by the text and the illustrations. If you've got -- or know -- a reluctant young reader who is interested in history, Japanese culture, samurais, and/or manga/anime, Samurai Rising is a book you should know. I've already successfully booktalked it to two young readers, and both were thrilled with it. And I'll get out my crystal ball, early in the season, and say that I think Samurai Rising should be a top contender for the 2017 Sibert Medal and the 2017 Newbery Medal. Fingers crossed!

End notes: Thanks to Donna Spurlock at Charlesbridge for helping to set up Gareth's event at the library, and for sending a review copy of Samurai Rising. Thanks also to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for helping to "book" the event at the library.

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