Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Samurai Kids: Monkey Fist
by Sandy Fussell
Illustrated by Rhian Nest James
Published by Walker Books Australia
ISBN: 9781921150913
Release date: 1 August 2009

Although Monkey Fist is a stand-alone story it is also Sandy Fussell's fourth book in the Series.

In Samurai Kids, Sensei Ki-Yaga, a Samurai Warrior from old Japan collects students that no other Samurai master is willing to train and sets up his Cockroach Ryu Training School. On their own, each student may struggle but together, they discover they are strong. Already they have proved themselves strong enough to win the annual Samurai Training Games and beat the Dragon Ryu who made fun of them. They have developed the ninja skills needed to enter the castle of the Emperor and avert war between the mountain ryus. They have travelled across China to aid the shaolin monks of the White Tiger Temple. In Monkey Fist, they race to the Forbidden City to rescue Kyoko from the evil Secretary of Rites, Lu Zeng.

In preparing questions about the cultural setting and background to Samurai Kids: Monkey Fist, I picked up two the earlier books in the series - White Crane and Owl Ninja hoping to taste something of the flavour of the series and learn about the characters. I found myself immersed in layer upon layer of Japanese culture, mysticism and folklore. The stories read like an enlarged Haiku offering so much more than the words themselves.

I am so delighted that Sandy Fussell can join me today for her blog tour.
Welcome Sandy!

1. As I read your Samurai books I am struck by the underlays of Japanese culture, folklore, mysticism waiting to be uncovered. How did this relationship come about?

I did a project on Japan when I was nine. I thought it was the most beautiful, magical place. And I still do. I’ve never been there and some of my friends say I wrote Samurai Kids in the hope of one day going on a research trip! Oh, I wish. From Japan the Kids travel to China, where Monkey Fist is set. I have been to China but only barely. I did a day trip from Hong Kong which saw the group venture just far enough inside the border to need a visa. China is on my wish list too. I would love to see the Forbidden City where much of the action of Monkey Fist takes place. Later titles will see the Samurai Kids journey into Korea, the Kingdom of Joseon. The culture and history of north-east Asia fascinates me.

2. I am most intrigued by the relationship between the names of the Cockroach Ryu members and their totems. Tell me about them.

To me, the children’s spirit guides were a natural extension of the fact that these were children with special abilities. They draw strength from ‘their spirit’. Niya’s spirit is the White Crane because like him, it stands one-legged, perfectly still and balanced. Like the White Crane, Niya has excellent eyesight and dreams of flying high. Blind Taji’s spirit is the Golden Bat and like the bat he can see life clearly despite the darkness he lives in.

What I didn’t anticipate was how children would love this feature. In truth, I was a little wary as this is the one aspect which does not have a firm footing in Japanese history or culture. It belongs to Sensei’s wisdom and the children’s sense of identity. Now kids often approach me brandishing imaginary swords, saying: “I’m Mikko and my spirit is the Striped Gecko.” 

3. Tell me more about the Samurai - Ninja relationship.

The samurai and the ninja were traditional enemies so it was only natural that eventually the Kids would come in contact with ninja. Plus my youngest son insisted on it. After I read the original manuscript to him he asked: “Where are the ninja?” I was trying to think of a clever-parent answer when he said: “I know, they’re in Book 2”. So when Walker Books later asked me if I had any ideas for a sequel – ninja immediately came to mind. The other thing that fascinated me about the samurai-ninja relationship was the irony - while the proud noble samurai despised the sneaky, deceitful ninja, when he wanted someone assassinated in the middle of the night, he employed a ninja!

4. Can you describe something of the significance of Zen and Tao in the Samurai Kids generally but particularly with reference to Monkey Fist.

The samurai practised Zazen meditation; they believed it was as important to care for the mind and the body. There are many things about Zen which fascinate me. I love the simplicity of its wisdom – that nothing could be the ultimate answer. Zen is everything and Zen is nothing. This is intrinsic to the humour of Samurai Kids where as a Zen Master, Sensei is a Master of NOTHING and the kids spend a lot of time learning about NOTHING. Zen koans are heaps of fun. Like: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Kids are very Zen and have immediate answers. We adults are the one who think too much!

The Tao way was one of going with the flow and of being one with nature. It too was a popular thought in Japan and China in the mid seventeenth century. Sensei’s teachings are mainly based on Zen with a Tao influence. In Samurai Kids the focus is not on the religious ideology but the positive values of these beliefs and their historical context.

5. What part do the almost casual references to Japanese folkloric icons such as Tanuki, fox, shape shifters etc play in the overall telling of the story.

The samurai and people of seventeenth century Japan believed in creatures like the Tanuki. They believed the fox, or Kitsune, was a shapeshifter. They believed in monsters and ghosts. The people of isolated mountain areas were as superstitious as the members of the Imperial Court. What we now call folktales were accepted parts of the samurai kids cultural world. These elements add a historical perspective and an exotic flavour to the storytelling. What kid doesn’t love a good fairytale or ghost story?

6. Sensei is also known as Ki-Yaga. Why? Is a subtle connection to the Russian Baba Yaga intended here or is the name similarity co-incidental?

I don’t exactly know where the name came from. I made it up and it sounded right. In retrospect, not choosing authentic Japanese names is my greatest regret and a mistake I will never repeat. But my initial feedback was no reader would remember seven Japanese names. I have since found that only applies to adults!!! Kids could have easily remembered twenty!!!

Ki-Yaga’s name was originally Ki-Yoda but some felt it was too similar to Jedi Master Yoda (A wise teacher is a wise teacher in any galaxy and yes, I am a Star Wars fan!). Kids often ask me where Ki-Yaga gets his sayings from and I tell them about the one I found in a fortune cookie “Never use a hatchet to remove a fly from the face of a friend.” But when my eldest son read White Crane he said: “It’s you. Sensei talks just like you do.” Hmm….

7. I found the term ‘Monkey Fist’ used to describe a nautical type of knot. How does the term apply to the Samurai?

Monkey Fist has a triple meaning in the book. It is a nautical knot which Kyoko learns when the kids first travel to China by boat. With her six fingers on each hand Kyoko is adept at tying knots. In Imperial China, where a knot is a symbol of longevity, Kyoko’s skill is coveted by the evil Lu-Zeng who kidnaps her. Monkey Fist is also a shaolin fighting skill, one of the Monkey Moves where the fighter imitates the stance of a monkey and uses agility to advantage. When Lu-Zeng forces Kyoko to fight for him, she must rely on her Monkey fighting skills. Which is only natural, as her spirit guide is the rare Japanese macaque or Snow Monkey.

Thank you Sandy. I've enjoyed your visit immensely as I hope have our visitors to this site. To learn more about the Samurai Kids, I hope you will all check in at the other stops on Sandy's blog tour as listed below.

Tour Schedule:

1 Aug  Dee White
2 Aug  Dale Harcombe
3 Aug  Claire Saxby
4 Aug  Sally Odgrs
5 Aug  Mabel Kaplan [That's right here]
6 Aug  Sally Murphy
7 Aug  Robyn Opie
8 Aug  Rebecca Newman
9 Aug  Susan Stephenson
10 Aug Jeffery E Doherty


  1. Thanks for a great interview Sandy and Mabel. I just love all the symbolism and the wisdom in the Samurai Kid's books.


  2. Thank you for hosting me Mabel. And that's the best picture of a Monkey Fist knot I've seen so far. I'm going to save it for future use!

  3. I enjoyed the questions, and the answers very much - thanks to you both!

  4. Excellent post and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  5. Question and answer are excellent. Thanks