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Lensey Namioka (1929-) - Sidelights

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Lensey Namioka worked primarily as a mathematics instructor before beginning her career as a published writer in the mid-1970s. Namioka's works, as she once told Something about the Author (SATA), "draw heavily" on her "Chinese cultural heritage and on [her] husband's Japanese cultural heritage." Namioka is perhaps best known for her series of exciting, adventure-mystery books about two sixteenth-century Japanese samurai warriors and for her humorous, juvenile novels about a family of Chinese immigrants living in Seattle.

Namioka's first book for young readers, The Samurai and the Long-nosed Devils, is set in sixteenth-century Japan and introduces Konishi Zenta and Ishihara Matsuzo. They are young, freelance samurai warriors, or ronin, and must wander to find work. When they gain employment as the bodyguards of Portuguese missionaries, Zenta and Matsuzo must solve a murder mystery to save their employers. As their investigation progresses, the two ronin find themselves enmeshed in a web of political intrigue. Zena Sutherland, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books commented that Namioka's debut "has a lively plot with an abundance of derring-do." Adventures continue in White Serpent Castle, as Zenta and Matsuzo must confront the ghost of a white serpent as they investigate another mystery. According to Sada Fretz in Kirkus Reviews, the "solution . . . folds in on itself like . . . origami." Namioka includes historical notes and bibliographies in both The Samurai and the Long-nosed Devils and White Serpent Castle.


Zenta and Matsuzo continue their adventures in Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees. Expecting to see the beautiful cherry trees of the famed valley, the two currently unemployed samurai are shocked to find destruction: a number of trees have been mutilated. As they investigate to determine who has harmed the trees, they once again find themselves in the middle of a power struggle. A critic in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reported that the author "evokes the place and period vividly." Paul Heins, reviewing Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees for Horn Book, noted that the "narrative, which develops an elaborate plot, is threaded with mystery, intrigue, action, and suspense."

When Zenta and Matsuzo arrive at a familiar village to visit an elderly tea master in Village of the Vampire Cat, they discover another mystery: a vampiric feline appears to be killing young women. Zenta and Matsuzo investigate the murders and prove that the vampire cat is neither a vampire nor a cat. They also participate in the Japanese tea ceremony. As Betsy Fuller McGuckin asserted in School Library Journal, Namioka's characters "offer all the mystery and contradiction of human nature." According to Sutherland in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "the period details, the mores, and the customs are smoothly integrated."

In Island of Ogres, another samurai, Kajiro, is sent to an island to spy on its commander. Kajiro is mistakenly identified as Zenta, who is already hiding on the island, having fallen in love with the commander's wife. Matsuzo's challenge in this story is to help Zenta. As Christine Behrmann wrote in School Library Journal, Namioka's storyline is "byzantine" and "appearance versus reality permeates the plot." According to Behrmann, readers who follow the shifting perspectives and "elliptical style" so appreciated by Namioka's fans "will be rewarded."


In The Coming of the Bear Zenta and Matsuzo are taken prisoner on the island of the Ainu, a race of round-eyed people that still live on the island of Hokkaido. Nevertheless, they manage to solve the mystery of a killer bear while also preventing a war between Ainu and Japanese settlers. This book, according to Lola H. Teubert in the Voice of Youth Advocates, will "bring to the reader romance, adventure, cunning, mystery . . . and insight into a vanishing culture." John Philbrook dubbed The Coming of the Bear "a real page-turner" in his School Library Journal review.

Namioka's first work of young-adult fiction set in contemporary times, Who's Hu?, was published in 1981. This novel follows Emma, a Chinese teenager who must decide whether to follow Chinese ways or those of the Americans she meets in her new home in the Boston area. Emma is led to believe that appearances, and fitting in, are more important in this culture than academic excellence; she must discover what she herself values. Malinda Sinaiko, writing in School Library Journal, noted that "an entertaining education in Chinese customs and culture vs. the American way of life" is included in the plot.

Similarly, April and the Dragon Lady is a novel about a girl coming to terms with her Chinese cultural heritage and contemporary American expectations at the same time. Chinese-American April Chen must balance her plans to go away to college with her responsibilities to her grandmother, the "dragon lady." She must also weigh the respect she has for her family with her decision to see a white boyfriend. "This is a well told story, believable and engaging," wrote Linda Palter in the Voice of Youth Advocates. "Sparked by Namioka's own experiences as an Asian-American, April's first person narrative rings true," concluded Sharon Korbeck in School Library Journal.

Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear and Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family are part of a series of humorous novels about a family of Chinese musicians who have recently immigrated to Seattle. In Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear tone-deaf Yang Yingtao has a difficult time performing in the family quartet and prefers to exercise his natural athletic talent in baseball games. He develops a friendship with a white boy, and they begin to introduce each other to their different norms, customs, and prejudices. According to Nancy Vasilakis in Horn Book, Namioka "explores issues of diversity, self-realization, friendship, and duty with sensitivity and a great deal of humor." In Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family Yingmei, or Mary, gradually comes to terms with the embarrassment cultural differences bring her. Hazel Rochman, reviewing the novel for Booklist, remarked upon the "uproarious scenes of cross-cultural awkwardness," and concluded that children will understand Namioka's message: "that we are all 'ethnic.'"


The Hungriest Boy in the World is a humorous cautionary tale for young readers. A boy named Jiro has a bad habit of putting anything and everything in his mouth. When he inadvertently swallows a hunger monster, he literally eats everything, including quilts and fish guts. Jiro's problem is resolved when the monster is tricked into leaving Jiro's body and entering a puppet. Horn Book reviewer Jennifer M. Brabander found the artwork by Aki Sogabe perfectly suited to the story, writing that "the humor of Namioka's matter-of-fact tone is reflected in Sogabe's illustrations." Similarly, Gillian Engberg wrote in Booklist that the "silly, farcical story is spiced with images kids will love," and added that the book is good for reading aloud. Namioka's humor was also appreciated by School Library Journal reviewer Grace Oliff, who commented that The Hungriest Boy in the World "is told economically but with wit and humor."- Ties That Bind, Ties That Break explores themes of cultural conflict and political unrest. Ailin is a young woman in 1920s China who is expected to prepare herself for marriage and a traditional family life. Unwilling to take the road expected of her, Ailin rebels and her journey of independence eventually takes her to America. Although the transition is a difficult one, in the end she is rewarded with happiness and self-respect. Shelle Rosenfeld, reviewing the novel for Booklist, praised Namioka's depiction of the complicated heroine, commenting specifically that the "characters have exceptional depth." Rosenfeld also praised the author's "lyrical, descriptive prose" and the accomplishment of a book that is "emotionally and historically illuminating."

Namioka reunites her readers with some of the characters from Ties That Bind, Ties That Break in An Ocean Apart, a World Away, where young Yanyan is bent on making her own way despite the tradition and culture of 1920s China. Her dream is to become a doctor, not a wife, and her wealthy parents are willing to support her decision, but when Yanyan develops feelings toward one of her brother's friends, however, she questions her original plan. Because the man she loves is a political rebel, and life with him would be dangerous, she ultimately turns down his request to run away together and heads to America to attend school at Cornell University. The second half of the book follows Yanyan as she adapts to her new life. She faces challenges emotionally, socially, and academically, including the opportunity to enter into a traditional Chinese marriage, but eventually gets her footing.Reviewing An Ocean Apart, a World Away, Olivia Durant in Kliatt applauded Namioka for creating a "captivating story of a strong female character in a nontraditional role, smoothly weaving in aspects of Chinese culture and history." According to Lori Atkins Goodson in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, "Namioka gives a lively history lesson—She wraps these historic elements around the tale of a typical teenager trying to find her own place in the world." Paula Rohrlick, writing in Kliatt, found Yanyan to be much more than a typical teenager, remarking that Namioka's "tale of a resolute early feminist and of cultural differences will appeal to fans of historical fiction and of feisty female protagonists." While the romance, setting, and strong heroine "contribute to the book's appeal," wrote Kathleen Isaacs in School Library Journal, "its special strength is the voice of its narrator."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, April 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Yang the Third and Her Impossible Family, p. 1500; May 15, 1999, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, p. 1697; April 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of The Hungriest Boy in the World, p. 1479.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1977, Zena Sutherland, review of The Samurai and the Long-nosed Devils, pp. 78-79; June, 1980, review of Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees, p. 197; June, 1981, Zena Sutherland, review of Village of the Vampire Cat, p. 200.

Horn Book, June, 1980, Paul Heins, review of Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees, pp. 307-308; July-August, 1992, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear, pp. 452-453; May, 2001, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of The Hungriest Boy in the World, p. 313.

Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, May, 2003, Lori Atkins Goodson, review of An Ocean Apart, a World Away, p. 701.

Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 1976, Sada Fretz, review of White Serpent Castle, p. 1146.

Kliatt, July, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of An Ocean Apart, a World Away, p. 13; May, 2004, Olivia Durant, review of An Ocean Apart, a World Away, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly, July 8, 2002, review of An Ocean Apart, a World Away, p. 50.

School Library Journal, May, 1981, Betsy Fuller McGuckin, review of Village of the Vampire Cat, p. 76; February, 1982, Malinda Sinaiko, review of Who's Hu?, p. 79; March, 1989, Christine Behrmann, review of Island of the Ogres, p. 200; March, 1992, John Philbrook, review of The Coming of the Bear, p. 240; April, 1994, Sharon Korbeck, review of April and the Dragon Lady, p. 152; April, 2001, Grace Oliff, review of The Hungriest Boy in the World, p. 119; July, 2002, Kathleen Isaacs, review of An Ocean Apart, a World Away, pp. 123-1224.

Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1992, Lola H. Teubert, review of The Coming of the Bear, p. 227; June, 1994, Linda Palter, review of April and the Dragon Lady, pp. 87-88.*

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