Why has Niya only got one leg?
The first time a reader asked the question, I was stumped. I hadn’t thought about this piece of backstory because it wasn’t an issue for Niya. So only one answer fitted--Niya had been born that way. It was part of who he was, like the colour of his hair, his quick wit and irreverent sense of humour.
In the very first paragraph of White Crane, Niya talks about having one leg. It defines the entire series and sets the tone for the storytelling. Niya is physically different and training to be a samurai is hard for him but he can laugh about it and has an inner strength which more than compensates.
'...I scissor kick as high as I can and land on my right foot. I haven’t got another one. My name is Niya Moto and I am the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan. Usually I miss my foot and land on my backside. Or flat on my face in the dirt. I’m not good at exercises but I’m great at standing on one leg. Raising my arms over my head, I pretend I am the White Crane...'
The main characters in the Samurai Kids series all have a personal challenge to overcome. Niya has one leg, Mikko has one arm, Taji is blind, Yoshi refuses to fight and Kyoko has extra fingers and toes. And she’s a girl. I treat these differences with gentle humour.
When Taji has to write a poem at the Annual Samurai Trainee Games, he can’t see the page and the rules don’t allow anyone to help him. So he leaves it blank but submits it anyway. The Komuso Priests of Emptiness and Nothingness award him full points for a flawless poem containing not a single error. It’s very Zen.
When I first pitched the idea of a story about a group of samurai children with disabilities to my writing colleagues, they were intrigued but very cautious. “Do all the kids have to have a disability?” they asked. “Yes,” I insisted. “My story is about being different, accepting challenges and working as a team.” “But you are focussing on their disabilities by grouping them together.” Yes,” I said. “I’m doing that on purpose.”
In my mind were Aristotle’s words: “The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.” None of my characters were able to do everything other kids could but together they were capable of even greater things. Their aged, eccentric teacher, Sensei Ki-Yaga, chose them as his students because of this.
Says Niya of Sensei: ‘...I am not a counter of feet,’ he told me. ‘I am a collector of more important parts. And when I buy you socks, they will last twice as long...’
Niya with his one leg was graceful like the White Crane, skilled at things that required balance like archery. His leg didn’t run fast but his mind raced to solve problems. Yoshi’s Tiger strength and reluctance to fight made him a good strategist and leader. Taji, like the Golden Bat, saw with his ears and was an excellent spy. Mikko didn’t need a right arm. His strong left arm and ability to move as fast as a Striped-Tailed Gecko made him the best swordsman in the Tateyama Mountains. White-haired Kyoko could tie a knot that would hold forever and climb the tallest tree like a Snow Monkey. Other kids laughed at her but Niya thought she was beautiful.
The Samurai Kids drew inspiration from their natural world. Together they were Sensei’s Little Cockroaches; they had big dreams and bigger adventures.
During my research, I uncovered a piece of poetic writing associated the Samurai Code. Its provenance was unknown but was perfect for me. It talked about having no body, no eyes, no ears and no limbs, but having other non-physical qualities which made a samurai far stronger.
When Yoshi had to select tie-breaker events at the Games, he allowed the other side to choose as long as the events were fought strictly according to the Code. Niya was horrified with Yoshi’s decision; until the Code was read out.
'...No eyes. No legs. No arms. Finally I understand. A big grin spreads across my face. Who can fight best without arms, legs and eyes. Us. We were born to fight with parts missing...'
The other team, who have bullied and derided the Little Cockroaches, must now compete blindfolded, one leg tucked up and one arm tied behind their back.
Still, there was some consensus among my writer friends, that to have a large group of disabled young characters was politically incorrect. I never had this reaction from my publisher. I was thrilled to see the by-line Walker Books Australia gave the series:
“A celebration of difference.” But when the first book was published, I waited nervously - would there be parents, readers and reviewers who felt I had got it wrong?
My readers readily embraced the concept. They would tell me which character they admired and identified with. A partially-blind Year 5 student told me: “I’m like Taji. I’m glad you wrote this book for me.” A parent emailed from the US to tell me her son was having a major operation involving skin taken from his leg. He was to be on crutches for a long time. He hopped around the house pretending to be Niya. If Niya could do it, then so could he.
Despite my best intentions, I made a mistake. Another parent emailed to say she loved White Crane but was disappointed with how I had handled Kyoko's albinism. She wasn’t offended, just puzzled because otherwise it was an obviously well-researched book.
My Kyoko had white hair and pink eyes but unlike albino children, she had excellent eye-sight. I was stunned. I never thought of Kyoko as albino and had not researched the condition at all, yet clearly I had described Kyoko accordingly and the notes which had been added to the character images at the start of the book referred to her as albino.
I intended Kyoko to be different but to also to show she was still beautiful. I based her physical description on the white rabbit with pink eyes that I had as a childhood pet. I apologised and said while I could not change what had already been published; I would never again refer to Kyoko’s pink eyes.
I have spent considerable time with children with disabilities as a volunteer, as a friend and as family. With the Samurai Kids series, I wanted to express my admiration for the things these kids achieve and the wonderful sense of humour they bring to the challenges of every day life.
I didn’t want to moralise or patronise, and stepping carefully would have been doing just that. I followed my heart and hoped I didn’t offend anyone. When White Crane was chosen as an IBBY Outstanding Book for Young People with Disabilities in 2011, I cried.
Sandy Fussell is a mum, a computer programmer and an author. To her surprise the three jobs go together well. She is the author of the award-winning Samurai Kids series and Polar Boy which was CBCA shortlisted in 2009. The last book in the Samurai Kids series, Black Tengu, was released on 1 October 201. Click here to win the entire Samurai Kids book set.