I first came across Tom and Dorothy Hooblers' work a couple of years ago when I reviewed The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn and The Demon in the Teahouse, books one and two of their Samurai mystery series. Based on the real life of Judge Ooka, an early 18th century Japanese samurai and judge, the books follow the adventures of his fictional teenage son, Seikei. Determined to be a great samurai, Seikei is overwhelmed at the opportunities afforded him by life with the Judge. It is not wealth that he enjoys most but the opportunity to live up to the ideals of the samurai - to be courageous and smart and also deeply thoughtful and articulate. As readers will learn from the books, the samurai were not all about being warriors; they were also poets and artists. To be a true samurai was, in essence, to be a renaissance man. This is the kind of man Seikei hopes to become and by helping the judge solve his cases, he moves carefully forward along that path.
But solving the cases - now that's where all the fun mysteries are found!
Beyond the samurai series though, the Hooblers have written dozens of other historical novels for children. They also wrote one of my favorite books last year, The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein. I included this fascinating literary biography (almost a biography of a book, or biography of a group of crazy creative geniuses) last year in a feature for Bookslut. I have returned to it several times since then, particularly after the recent ridiculous assertion that Mary Shelley did not really write Frankenstein. (The Hooblers kindly weighed in on that insanity for me in a post here a couple of months ago.)
What I have found, both in my email exchanges with them and in reading their books, is that Tom and Dorothy Hoobler are passionately curious people who write about the subjects that interest them in a way that draws fans not only to their books, but also to the real people and places they research. I was quite pleased to be able to ask them some questions about the samurai series and writing historical fiction for children. I think these authors are very underappreciated by readers and hope I can lure some more fans to enjoy Seikei's adventures.
How did you first discover Judge Ooka and what prompted you to craft a YA mystery series around his life?
T&D: We've known about the Judge for a long time, from our reading of Japanese culture and history. One summer when we were in Maine, we started tossing around ideas for books. We wanted to do some historical fiction, and Judge Ooka's name came up. Japanese Sherlock Holmes? How could you go wrong? Then we decided to shape the books for young people by giving him a teenage assistant. Seikei was born. We should add that it took us about ten years to sell the first book, because every publisher we approached feared that The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn would be too difficult for American kids. The publishers constantly look down on their audience, and this is one reason why many of today's kids know so little about other cultures.
Seikei find himself engaged in very complex mysteries in each of the books that rely heavily upon history and the early 18th century Japanese environment/culture. (I thought it was interesting in A Samurai Never Fears Death how you explained that Japanese people could not visit China and thus knew little or nothing about the country.) Have you ever faced any resistance to your plots from publishers or had questions raised that they might be too complicated for YA readers (something I think is wrong, but I'm curious nonetheless)?
T&D: See answer above. But we must say that after Michael Green at Philomel read the manuscript of The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn, he went to bat for it. His boss insisted that we take out a chapter, and Philomel gave no promotion or advertising to the book, but we got it into print. It was nominated for an Edgar, which took everybody off guard. Since then, Michael has become the head of Philomel (though that imprint is still under the huge umbrella of the parent company: Pearson Penguin Putnam), and he has strongly supported us and our books. Only rarely have we had any disagreements, and almost never over the books' contents.
How do you decide which aspects of Japanese life to incorporate into your stories - in other words are you constantly reading about the history of the country or using published information about Judge Ooka's real cases as a guide, etc.
T&D: The only time we have mentioned one of the Judge's real cases is in the sixth book, which has just been completed and won't be published for a while. Even then, it's just an example, not the main mystery of the story. Before we start to work on a new book, we generally decide on a general setting and/or theme for the book, and then do specific research to find out more. For example, when we decided to send Seikei back to Osaka, his home town (in book five), we realized that was the center of the Japanese puppet theater art, and we started to research that in detail. During the research, we start to think of a story.
What do you think about the current crop of historical fiction for teens? Is there enough, should there be more, should there be more of a concentration on the history of other countries, etc.
T&D: We don't read our competition, but in general we know that history and geography are greatly downplayed in most American schools. (They teach something called "social studies," which is what you used to learn walking to school.) As a result, kids have to learn these subjects from what they see on TV or read on their own. Publishers usually shy away from world history and historical fiction, fearing that kids won't like it. Some American history makes its way into books, because publishers feel that kids probably know that. We did a series awhile ago, for a younger audience than the Seikei books, called Her Story. Each book was about a young girl at a different time and place in American history. Silver Burdett Press, the publisher, was suddenly shut down by the parent company (Viacom), and the eight books we had done went out of print. Then a few years later, somebody thought it was a good idea to start up Silver Burdett Press again. They asked us to do four more books in the series. Foolishly, we did, and just as they scheduled us for an author tour, the parent company shut them down again. This is what happens when people making decisions at publishing companies know or care nothing about books. We could go on and on. By the way, some of those early books that Silver Burdett Press published are now selling on Bookfinder.com for well over a hundred dollars. So somebody liked them--just not the bigwigs at Viacom, who certainly never read them and don't understand book publishing anyway.
Do you think mysteries are a good alternative way to educate teens about history? I found myself learning a lot in the Samurai stories - without even realizing it. Is this perhaps a subtle way of getting lessons about the past across to your readers?
T&D: Shhhhhhh. Don't let anybody know you can actually learn anything from these books. We often get letters from kids who were assigned one of our books in class, and then were surprised to find that it was a good read as well. We never set out to "teach" anybody anything. We set out to tell an interesting story.
There is a misconception among western readers (fueled by decades of movies, cartoons, books, etc.) that the Samurai were largely soldiers but you are careful to include other aspects of the Samurai life into each story - as men who are dedicated to writing, the tea ceremony, etc. Do you think that more needs to be written about these aspects of the Samurai life and do you consciously decide to include such small bits of information in each book?
T&D: Kids have no trouble learning about imaginary worlds, whether it's in the Harry Potter novels or any of the numerous fantasy series that are popular right now. The names Hagrid and Dumbledore are just as strange as Seikei and Ooka. We are setting our stories in a time and place that are unfamiliar to most of our readers. Since we have studied this time and place, we know a lot of details that many people don't. We use those details when they seem necessary to the story. We don't think we're being any more detailed (in fact, a lot less so) than J.K. Rowling. It's just that our time and place really existed. If knowing that makes kids more excited about history, great. We think 18th century Japan can be as much fun to read about as any fantasy realm.
Really, when you think about it, the Hooblers are dead on about the comparison between fantasy and historical fiction. How come we have the misconception (as readers and as parents/teachers/etc.) that fantasy is frivolous "fun" reading and historical fiction is hard or more complicated. Any kid can give you a blow by blow description of the Harry Potter series or Star Wars movies but ask them about Japanese history and watch their eyes glaze over with uncertainty. I understand the appeal of wizards - believe me I love the books and movies - but I do think that a well written historical novel can be just as gripping and readable for any kid. The Hooblers' Samurai series most definitely fits that description and if you want to introduce your middle schooler - teenage reader to something that has a bit more factual "meat" to it than the average story, this series fits the bill. Great characters, mysterious setting and very smart mysteries; Seikei's world is the whole package and these books should not be missed.
(I will be including the lates Samurai book, A Samurai Never Fears Death, in my August column at Bookslut.)
KLIATT review of another Seikei mystery, In Darkness Death