A Sister City connection with a city in Japan launched Margi Preus' career as a children's book author.
"Heart of a Samurai," her new award-winning novel for young readers, is receiving rave reviews - four stars from Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus and Booklist.
At present, Preus is in Japan, but she'll be back home in Duluth, Minn., one day before she takes off again - this time to visit Washington.
Preus will be in town next Saturday morning, Oct. 23, to make a presentation at Four Rivers YMCA, following the annual Run to Read, which is held at Lions Lake. Registrations for the run-walk will be open until race day, with participants receiving a hardcover book for joining in the fun.
"Preus' presentation should be entertaining and informative for readers of all ages," Dawn Kitchell, of The Missourian, said. "She has a strong background in theater, has written and directed plays for children, authored several picture books and teaches children's literature at the college level.
"‘Samurai' is great read, a September Book Buzz Pick," Kitchell added. "The book is based on the true story of Manjiro, a 14-year-old boy from Japan who is shipwrecked on an island, spends time on a whaling ship, and is the first Japanese to visit America in the mid-1800s."
Writing a historical novel such as "Samurai" requires extensive research. Preus steeped herself in "stacks of books - everything from whaling to nautical terminology to ‘Moby Dick,' " Preus said. "I also visited the area where Manjiro grew up and New Bedford/Fairhaven, Mass., where he lived in America."
Preus also "talked to Manjiro enthusiasts, watched samurai movies and read novels that took place in the same time period."
Now back in Japan making school visits, attending the 20th anniversary celebration of Duluth's sister city with Isumi City, and the Tokyo Writers Conference, Preus is being asked by Japanese children why she decided to write books about Japan.
"It started because of the student exchange/homestay program that our sister city program offers with Isumi City. Both of our children participated, two sons, and while my youngest son was there I was along as a chaperone," Preus said. "He suggested that I write a story about the Peace Bell. One thing led to another - while researching that picture book, I ran across the story of Manjiro."
"The Peace Bell," published in 2008, is based on the true story of a temple bell in a Japanese village that was rung annually on New Year's Eve.
The bell meant a great deal to the villagers, but during World War II was donated as scrap metal. The bell was later discovered intact in a shipyard by American sailors, sent to Minnesota and then returned to the village as a symbol of peace and friendship.
Preus' background in theater and teaching has served her well as a writer. Writing plays has helped her to write dialogue in books - "but also writing for theater has helped me think about what the reader is seeing - you are always thinking about what the audience will be experiencing," Preus said. "What is the setting? What are they doing on stage? This has helped me envision what the reader, like the theater-goer is ‘seeing' as they read."
Many writers have inklings that they will be inking books as adults - not Preus.
"I wasn't born a writer, that's for sure," she said. "But I think just about everything I've done, everyone I've known, everything I've read, and my children, all have contributed to me being a children's book author."
And her advice for would-be writers - "Read. Being a writer who doesn't like to read is like being a cook who doesn't like food," Preus advised. "And write. You aren't going to write a book if you don't start by writing a page."
Preus remains humble about the success of "Heart of a Samurai."
"To be honest, I'm just thrilled that readers are enjoying the book. I think Manjiro lived a great life, full of adventure and he had a great soul. I can't take credit for that."
Those attending her presentation at the YMCA can expect to hear about Preus' recent trip to Japan, her school visits there, background on "Samurai," and talk of her dog too, with plenty of time for questions, she said.
And what does Preus hope readers, young and old, will take away from the story of Manjiro?
"I hope they're inspired by his life and his example of fostering peace through friendship. If they are impacted in this way, I'll be very pleased indeed."
‘Heart of a Samurai'
Following is the description of Preus' "Heart of a Samurai" that ran in The Missourian when it was selected as a Book Buzz Pick for September:
You can't make discoveries without taking some risks, and risks can be difficult and scary. They were for Manjiro, a young Japanese, who lived in the mid-1800s.
"Heart of a Samurai" details the life of Manjiro, the first Japanese to set foot in America, a country he was raised to believe was inhabited by fierce barbarians.
For hundreds of years, Japan was closed off from the rest of the world, and fictional stories of people from other lands filled the heads of the Japanese, who knew no better. One was 14-year-old Manjiro, who, along with some friends, left their village to fish. A storm capsized their boat and they were washed up on an island. Injured and starving, facing certain death, they were rescued by a crew on a whaling ship.
Manjiro was befriended by the ship's captain and taken to America. There, he faced many hardships, had to learn English and adapt to a culture totally different from his own, but along the way he never gave up, though he often longed to return to his native country.
This adventure is a wonderful read and Preus' first book - she's a grand author Newsbee was glad to discover.