Some things are totally fun for make believe, but you’d never want them around in real life. Pirates, dinosaurs, Jedi battles, etc. Basically anything where you get in fights or get eaten. Ninjas fall into this category. Pretend ninjas, though, are just silently cool and acrobatic. Despite the common childhood fascination with pretend ninjas, I’ve had trouble finding as many good ninja, samurai, or martial arts picture books as we’d like to read. Here are our favorites, in case you’re in the same boat. (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.)
NOTE: This post was first published in 2015, with reviews based on reading with my kiddo between preschool age and about nine years old; sometimes you’ll see a mention of how old he was when we read the book! As of 2023-4, I’m freshening up my children’s book posts and adding more recs.
The Perfect Sword by Scott Goto
Boy Detective’s eyes got really big when I pulled this out of the library shelf, and we had to bring it home. How could this cover not catch your eye? Goto’s paintings are absolutely gorgeous, with a gravity to them that goes with the story. His book is about what qualities make a person truly great, learned by a swordmaker’s apprentice who watches his master evaluate candidates for ownership of the sword. If you need a bedtime book about samurai and swords, this is the one.
Little Kunoichi: The Ninja Girl by Sanae Ishida
This is possibly the cutest, sweetest book about ninjas ever. Our heroine, Little Kunoichi, is struggling in her ninja studies. She meets Chibi Samurai, who trains at the samurai school in the neighboring village, and they team up to practice. After all, the Island Festival is coming up, and they want to show off their mad skills. But what to do? Having rejected ideas involving a cannon, spaceship, and unicorns, they come up with a show that their neighbors will surely never forget. It’s a pretty simple story, but the heart and the gorgeous, detailed watercolor paintings more than make up for it. Since Boy Detective is a fan of tiny cute things AND ninjas, this was a hit at our house.
Samurai Santa: A Very Ninja Christmas by Rubin Pingk
Poor little Yukio! Christmas Eve has perfect snow for a snowball fight, but none of the other ninjas want to join him. They don’t want to end up with coal in their stockings, so they’re being extra good. (Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Texas that I don’t understand why snowball fights are naughty. Do they always get out of hand?)
In any event, Yukio is ticked off, so he decides to run Santa out of the village for spoiling his fun. He acts as though Santa’s an intruder and sics all the ninja kids on him. What a shock when Santa turns out to be a samurai… with an army of snowmen! An epic battle ensues, Yukio comes to realize his anger-fueled decision wasn’t the greatest, but Santa sets everything right.
This book is full of funny little details, like the snowman whose carrot nose goes all the way through his head, sticking out the back like a hat (with leaves for decoration). After the epic battle, one of the ninjas is carried home on a stretcher because she or he is immobilized in a giant snowball. I really enjoyed how Pingk doesn’t just rely on “hey, look, ninjas” but instead created a complete, interesting story. The bitty ninjas are super cute, too.
Three Samurai Cats: A Story from Japan by Eric A. Kimmel, retold from Kenji Sora’s The Swordsman and the Cat
This book is a parable about how to solve problems. Neko Roshi, the “greatest living master of the martial arts,” is portrayed as a scruffy, old cat. After two young, strong warriors have tried and failed to dislodge a usurper rat from a lord’s castle, it’s Neko Roshi’s turn. He eats, sleeps, and watches the rat for so long that the lord becomes enraged. But in the end, Neko Roshi demonstrates that victory comes when you allow your opponents to defeat themselves. My son was so young when we read it the first time, he kind of missed the point, but he enjoyed the book just the same. And I appreciated how careful Kimmel was to credit and praise his source for this adaptation.
Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun’s Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully
Young Mingyi is being pressured into marriage by the bandit Soong Ling. He’s a real jerk, but the fate of Mingyi’s family’s business is at stake. She wants a way out, so she turns to Wu Mei, a local nun who’s known as the “beautiful warrior” for her martial arts skills. Postpone the marriage a year, says Wu Mei, and tell the bandit you’ll marry him then if he can beat you in kung fu. Mingyi does, and thus begins a year of her life that will change her destiny.
McCully did a lot of research for this book, which is only right given she was working outside her culture and the book takes place in the 17th century. She thanks several experts in her Acknowledgements section, and includes an author’s note at the end giving the story historical context. Martial arts buffs will know Wing Chun; that’s the name Mingyi would eventually take. (If she was real rather than just a figure of legend, which she may have been.)
I’ve enjoyed McCully’s artwork since I read Mirette on the High Wire. In this book, her paintings have so much movement, and her landscapes in particular are gorgeous. Mingyi’s initial impetuousness and Wu Mei’s serenity as a nun both clearly show in their expressions and body language. I was so glad to find a historical, female-centric martial arts book to complement some of the more modern, funny martial arts books we’ve also enjoyed.
The Three Ninja Pigs by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat.
We love Dan Santat’s illustration work. Combining it with Schwartz’s fresh spin on the Three Little Pigs ends up very cute. The ending won’t be much of a surprise for adults, but I love the spotlight on a female ninja and the happy ending achieved through practice. This book worked well even though Boy Detective wasn’t familiar with the Three Little Pigs fairy tale, as the strong storytelling and humor in this version stand completely on their own.
Wink, the Ninja Who Wanted to be Noticed by J.C. Phillipps
Wink really wants to be good at ninja school, but he also craves attention. He needs to find his own path! Though this is a story about being yourself, it’s not a story about rebellion and rejection. Wink doesn’t disrespect his ninja school master. His master ends up pleased that Wink has figured himself out. And it’s Wink’s grandmother’s advice that helps him finds his way. The sheer joy at the end of this book made my day.
(The second Wink book loses some of the respect I appreciated in the first book, as the ninja school master is presented in a more stereotyped way, like a generic “Asian wise man” from a kung fu movie – and Wink reacts to his sayings with disdain.)
And that’s the list!