JAGUAR WARRIOR

Jaguar Warrior by Sandy Fussell begins with slave boy Atl imprisoned in a box waiting to be sacrificed.

When the Spanish invade a fast runner is needed to request help from the nearby city of Purepecha; Atl is released.

However, the Captain of the Temple Guard believes Mexica is losing the battle because Atl has not been sacrificed as promised and pursues him. Accompanied by two friends, Lali and Zolan, Atl races through the jungle. Unknown to him, the Captain is hunting not far behind. Atl must make the decision to run to freedom or to complete the task he has been given.

Sandy Fussell, the author of Jaguar Warrior has been fascinated by Mexica (Aztec) history, ever since she was a child.

It’s such a dichotomy – the advanced, intellectual society sacrificing people so the sun would rise. Mexica civilization is an interesting look at how different beliefs shape history. It’s always tempting to look back and judge based on what we know today or our modern day ethics and values. I wanted to put the bloodthirsty stereotype version of Aztec history into perspective for younger readers while using it as the historical backdrop for an action adventure.

Jaguar Warrior is for readers 9+. While it is set in a culture known for their bloodthirsty sacrificial practices,  Sandy says it is not a violent or gory book.

I am very conscious of historical context – the need to get the facts right and in perspective – as well as the age of my readers. This balance was one of the main challenges when writing the story.

The story seems to really resonate with young readers and I asked Sandy why.

Readers tell me the chase is very exciting. One reviewer thought the story was so action packed she compared it to an Indiana Jones plot! There are jaguars, crocodiles, ghostly figures in the mist, slave traders, ambushes and the ever present threat of being captured and returned to the Temple for sacrifice.

As a writer, I know I get very attached to my main character. I get to know them so well that they start to seem like a friend or even a family member. Atl, in Jaguar Warrior seemed very real to me, and Sandy obviously has a close affinity with him.

Atl has a lot to learn about himself and he’s not happy to listen to anything his companion, Lali, has to say on that matter. He thinks she is an annoying show-off. And sometimes she is but she is very smart. It hasn’t been easy living as a slave and Atl has to decide whether to put his freedom first or even whether he can be free if he runs away from helping Tenochtitlan. He can be pig-headed and stubborn. But he is loyal to his friends when he works out who they are, and that helps him make his decision.

THE RESEARCH PROCESS

The thing Sandy enjoyed most about writing this book was doing the research.

I discovered this wonderful book called The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon-Portilla. It’s a collection of translated oral Nahuatl language accounts of the Spanish invasion – a perspective I hadn’t explored before. History is so often written by the victors and the Mexica people didn’t have a written language (although they kept hieroglyphic records) so it was the first real access I had to a native primary source. Plus some of the poetry is very haunting and beautiful.

THE HARDEST PART ABOUT WRITING JAGUAR WARRIOR

The hardest part was developing the reader relationship with the villain, the Temple Guard Captain, Huemac. I tell the story from two perspectives – that of the hero and the villain. I wanted the reader to know both equally well. But I wanted them to dislike Huemac intensely. And then, when I had achieved that, I wanted to turn the reader around and convince him/her to allow Huemac to be redeemed. (Which in Mexica culture meant to return to life for a brief period as a butterfly!)

Teacher’s notes and a web quest, Daily Life in an Aztec City are available on Sandy’s website www.sandyfussell.com

Tomorrow at Kid’s Book Capers, Sandy is going to talk us through the inspiration behind her much-anticipated fifth book in the Samurai Kids series, Fire Lizard.

SANDY FUSSELL – CINDERELLA AUTHOR?

Since her first book was published in 2007, Sandy Fussell has had four educational and seven trade titles published.

Sandy says she became an author after receiving some strongly worded advice from her son.

When he was in Year 4, my eldest son abruptly stopped reading because ‘all books are boring’. I couldn’t find anything he was willing to read so I challenged him to write a story to show me what wasn’t boring. To my surprise he agreed, only if I scribed the words. I tried to help. I tried to help once too often and was told to: “Go write you own story and leave mine alone.”

I took his advice, discovered how much I loved writing and haven’t stopped since then.

Sandy brings this sense of humour and wisdom to her popular Samurai Kids books and her stand alone novels, Polar Boy and Jaguar Warrior. She says that the thing she likes most about writing and being an author is the opportunity to engage with young readers.

As a writer for children, I spend many hours in schools speaking to kids about reading and my books, and running writing workshops. I could fill pages with their funny anecdotes and even more pages with thierinspiring stories. I have set up a blogging project, ReadWriteZone, where I blog with classes of children at www.readwritezone.blogspotcom.

She says that the hardest thing about being a writer is that it’s not a full-time job and she finds it difficult to squash family, work and writing into twenty-four hours.

Luckily I don’t need a lot of sleep. It gets particularly hard during a busy period like Book Week or if one of my children is sick or a major deadline looms. It can be quite stressful and I couldn’t do it if I didn’t love storytelling. Sometimes I wonder if I would write better if I was more awake. But then again, I secretly think: probably not!

Before she became an author, Sandy was (and still is) a systems analyst/computer programmer managing a number of large projects.

“This professional background has helped me develop interactive teaching resources to support the use of my books in the classroom and to maintain a dynamic web presence.”

SANDY’S GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT & CURRENT WORKS IN PROGRESS

I don’t think I have a greatest writing achievement, yet. It’s a work in progress. I haven’t been writing long enough to make comparative judgments. Probably in about ten years I’ll look back over my volume of work and feel comfortable with that.

I am a fiddler and a diddler. I doubt I would get anything done if it wasn’t for editorial deadlines. I am currently completing the final revision of Golden Bat, the sixth book in the Samurai Kids series and my first picture book, Sad the Dog. I am working on a young adult novel which is new territory for me and an exciting challenge. I am partway through another historical novel but have put that aside for the moment. Finally, the idea for a new fantasy series keeps poking into my thoughts but I am trying to push that one away for a while.

CONSISTENT ELEMENTS IN SANDY’S WRITING

To date most of my book have been historical fiction set in early cultures – feudal samurai Japan, the Mexica (Aztec) Empire and the 14th century Arctic. The locations are widespread – and I hope to eventually write my way around the ancient world – but there are symbols and themes common to the times such as animal mythology. In these centuries a child of twelve to fourteen was about to assume adulthood so there are also strong coming of age themes in many of my titles. I don’t create symbols or themes on purpose. It just happens while I am telling the story.

SANDY’S TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS

Read. Anything and everything. Read inside and outside your comfort zone. Try new authors, new genres and new directions. Wide range reading helps old and new writers absorb good techniques and look at ideas differently. It inspires and stimulates.

I used to say I was the Cinderella author. I felt as if someone had waved a magic wand over me and for at least a year I was really worried I would turn back into a pumpkin. I don’t worry any more. I feel like I have found a comfortable corner of the castle, surrounded by books and kids. I don’t have a ball gown or a glass slipper but I have a wooden practice sword and a gong. It’s heaps more fun! (I always think of my school visits as the ‘pointy sticks and loud noises tour’. I’m probably the only author to bang a gong in the NSW State Library!)

Sandy’s websites include:

an author website (www.sandyfussell.com)
a website dedicated to the Samurai Kids series (www.samuraikids.com.au)
a personal blog (www.sandyfussell.blogspot.com)
a classroom blog (www.readwritezone.blogspot.com),
a forum under development (http://samuraikids.com.au/phpbb2/index.php)
a Facebook Fan page (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Writing-WA/129790767068358#!/pages/Samurai-Kids-Series/132997448255?ref=ts).

Do I need all these? Probably not but I find it heaps of fun.

On Wednesday, we’ll hear all about how Sandy Fussell wrote Jaguar Warrior and on Thursday, Sandy is back at Kids’ Book Capers with some great insights into how she created her latest Samurai Kids’ book Fire Lizard. Hope you can join us then.

FRIDAY BOOK FEATURE – JAGUAR WARRIOR

In our house, reading is a big thing. I love that my boys love books and I love that family discussions take place at our dinner table about what is the latest ‘must read’.

I love that even though he is eleven, my son and I can snuggle up on the couch together before bed, and read a book like Jaguar Warrior.

I even love it that he got impatient and went ahead and finished the book before me.  That’s how engrossed he was with the story of Jaguar Warrior, and when you read it, you’ll see why.

The book’s hero, Atl has been imprisoned in a box for seven days and is waiting to die. He is about to be sacrificed to the bloodthirsty Mexica gods, but Atl has a strong heart and he refuses to give up.

When he is unexpectedly released and sent on a mission, it’s not the mission that has him running, it’s the chance of freedom.

But he has to stay one step ahead of his mortal enemy, The Captain. The Captain believes that Mexica will fall if the Serpent-Sun god is not appeased by a sacrifice. The Captain is determined to bring Atl back to fulfil that role.

Atl’s travelling companion, Lali fears The Captain – and for reasons that are revealed in the story, she should know him better than anyone. Lali says The Captain is “more terrifying than the armies of Spain and Mexica marching together.”

The tension and pace of this story keep you turning the pages, but for me, it was the well drawn characters and vivid detail that kept me reading when there were many other jobs I should have been doing.

Here’s an example of the evocative narrative – Atl is eating tortillas.

Eyes closed, I listen to my stomach purr. Old men say the jaguar spirit lives in a young warrior’s heart, but when I listen to my gut grown with contentment, I know that’s where the big cat crouches. And it likes corn cakes.

Humour and a strong character voice also endeared me to Atl and made me eager to know his fate.

The tension of the story is enhanced by the dual narrative. The point of view alternates between Atl and his foe, The Captain. The reader is given information that neither character knows and this also helps build up the suspense.

Set in Aztec times, Jaguar Warrior is a work of fiction but it has been so meticulously researched that I felt like I had stepped into the story.

Jaguar Warrior is Sandy Fussell’s sixth published book and she is fast becoming known for her fast-paced but beautifully descriptive historical fiction works. Sandy is the author of Polar Boy (shortlisted for a 2009 CBCA Award) and the Samurai Kid’s Books: White Crane, Owl Ninja, Shaolin Tiger and Monkey Fist.

Both my sons can’t wait to read the fifth Samurai Kid’s Books, and I’ll be eagerly waiting with them in the queue.