"Heart of a Samurai" by Margi Preus (Amulet Books, 301 pages, $15.95) is a thrilling, fictionalized account of the life of a real 19th-century Japanese boy.
Manjiro is 14 when he and his fellow fishermen are swept away in a storm and marooned on a rocky island. They survive by eating the albatrosses that nest there, and their eggs. But once nesting season is over, the birds fly off, and the five young men face starvation. Only the likable Manjiro keeps his spirits up; he's no Pollyanna, but he is inquisitive and hopeful, and the only one with a sense of humor.
Rescue comes in a terrifying form -- a ship of blue-eyed barbarians. In the mid-1800s, Japan was a closed nation. No foreigners were allowed to land; no natives who left were allowed to return. The outside world was an evil and fearsome place. And so when the ship arrives, it is no surprise that the fishermen are frightened. They are certain they will be killed, and when the barbarians -- actually, American whalemen -- don't kill them, but feed them, they are certain that they are being fattened up to be eaten later.
Manjiro alone is curious. Over time, he learns English. He asks a lot of questions. He helps out. He comes to understand Western ways. "It was true the Americans were somewhat uncivilized," Preus writes. "They were loud and dirty and let their hair grow in unruly knots and tangles. They swore and cussed and spat. ... But they knew a lot of things about which Manjiro knew nothing, and the thing they knew the most was the thing he knew the least: the size and shape and scope of the world. How could you not want to understand the world in which you lived?"
"Heart of a Samurai," named a Newbery Honor Book last week, is remarkable -- a coming-of-age story, a page-turner adventure, an intelligent, eloquent look at a particular time in history and the life of one extraordinary boy. Many of its illustrations were sketched by the real Manjiro himself (including the one above).
"The Big Crunch," by Pete Hautman (Scholastic Press, 280 pages, $17.99) Pete Hautman ("Godless," "How to Steal a Car") understands the minds of teenagers. In "The Big Crunch," he has written an utterly believable romance about two lonely teens -- June, whose father's profession keeps the family moving from city to city, and Wes, a self-described "semi-cool semi-geek" who has just broken up with his girlfriend.
The standard romance plot -- boy falls for girl, boy and girl break up, boy and girl reconcile -- doesn't feel hackneyed, because the writing is so fresh and the characters so real. Hautman moves effortlessly from the mind of Wes to the mind of June, and when complications and misunderstandings and, later, really bad decisions take place, you know exactly why.
Nothing terribly remarkable happens in this book -- no drug addictions or alcoholism, no parents breaking up and shattering the family, no unplanned pregnancies, no vampires. But Hautman's depiction of the interior life of teenagers is subtle and natural. If you're a teenager, you'll relate. If you're an adult, you'll be whisked back to those intense and overwhelming years.
One evening, Wes and June make cocoa: "It was awkward at first, but he quickly got the hang of it and kept whisking the melting chocolate as June added dollops of warm milk. He loved that they were doing something together -- not just being together, but having a goal, even if the goal was hot chocolate.
"'I like the way you whisk,' June said, and he felt it all up and down his spine."
June's father lands yet another job, and even when their love looks doomed, you'll find yourself rooting for these appealing kids the whole way.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor. She is at 612-673-7302.