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'The Five Ancestors': Kung Fu Vengeance for Kids


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, the sharpest cut of all for your Thanksgiving bird.

But first, a lot of people like the action in kung fu movies. Well, now they can live vicariously while reading. There's a new series of kung fu books called "The Five Ancestors." Its author is Jeff Stone. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates caught up with him for our Wednesday book segment, and she has this report.


Borders bookstore in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance is bustling on this Saturday night. The magazine racks are crowded with browsers, the espresso bar is doing double duty, and visitors are being encouraged to drift back to the children's section.

(Soundbite of bookstore noise)

Unidentified Woman #1: We're just minutes away from this evening's event.

BATES: The evening's featured author is back beyond the bookcases and the restrooms in a small office with buzzing fluorescent lights. He's just changed from a sweater into a martial arts jacket, and he's doing warm-up exercises. But before he goes out on the floor, Jeff Stone explains how a combination of personal goals brought him here.

Mr. JEFF STONE (Author, "The Five Ancestors"): I decided, all right, I want this one big life-changing project in which I'm going to try and combine all these elements. I'm going to really get into kung fu, and I'm going to really do another search for my birth mother and my birth father, and I'm going to write a story that tries to combine all these elements for kids.

BATES: The result is "The Five Ancestors," a series that centers on five boys in 16th-century China who grew up in a Buddhist monastery staffed by warrior monks. It is a young reader's book, but it begins in trauma.

Mr. STONE: The premise is this secret temple is attacked and destroyed in the opening scene of the first book, and the only survivors are five young warrior monks between the ages of 11 and 13, and each one has already mastered a different style of animal kung fu that's consistent with both their body type and their personality.

BATES: Tiger, for whom the first book is named, has some things in common with his animal namesake.

Mr. STONE: Tiger, just 12 years old, and like a tiger, he's big for his age. He's really aggressive. He's short-tempered. He's strong, and he has some certain issues that he needs to deal with throughout his book.

BATES: The just published second book focuses on Monkey, a boy who is small, clever, quick and conflict-averse. Jeff Stone says he wants his young readers to embrace who they are and learn to focus on their strengths.

Mr. STONE: Everyone's different. Don't try to be like someone else, because, you know, you are your own person, and if you, you know, have the spirit of a tiger, then run with it and use those strengths to your advantage and learn to curb some of the other elements.

BATES: But the destruction of the youngest monk's temple and the assassination of their beloved grand master forces the boys to rely on their individual strengths and consider how they'll survive in the wider world. Young readers will identify with the boys' initial confusion and their intrigue when Stone tells them why he was able to capture his heroes' anxiety.

Mr. STONE: And they don't know anyone. They don't--they've never been outside the temple, and they have to go somewhere, so each is tasked with uncovering the secrets of their past, as each is an orphan and had been adopted and raised together as brothers. I was an orphan, and I spent 15 years looking for my birth mother, and I started looking for her a sixth time in conjunction with writing this series.

BATES: After he began writing, though, the adoption laws changed in his home state, Michigan. Six months later, Jeff Stone was embraced by his mother, and a little after that, his father. It was a fairy-tale ending.

Mr. STONE: All right. I'll tell you a little bit about me, just a little bit, and then tell you about the series.

BATES: Out before his audiences, though, Stone confesses it was endings exactly like his that prompted him to begin writing.

Mr. STONE: I didn't actually read too many books growing up, but if I did read, it was usually fantasy, and in a lot of fantasy stories you have these main characters who are orphans and are searching for their pasts, and at the end of the book, they find, you know, their roots, and then the book ends, and as an adoptee, that used to drive me crazy, because, you know, that'd really be the beginning of your adventure.

BATES: Stone tells the assembled youngsters that his favorite way to explain his books is through kung fu demonstrations, and he asks for volunteers. The teens in the audience look on with interest, but they're too cool to raise their hands. But a dimpled 10-year-old named Nathan gamely comes to the front of the room.

Mr. STONE: Want to come up here?

BATES: And Stone shows him the difference between, well, crouching tiger, darting monkey and dragon-style kung fu, where energy is released in a big, snaky hiss.

Mr. STONE: You ready? Together, forward...

(Soundbite of Stone and Nathan hissing; applause)

Mr. STONE: Good job.

BATES: At the evening's end, youngsters leave with autographed books and souvenir kung fu belts, and they're already asking when the next book will be ready. That would be "Snake" in March. Jeff Stone is writing a 200-page book every six months until the seven-volume series is finished. It's a lot of work, but he's not complaining.

Mr. STONE: It's still the best job ever. I mean, you get to practice kung fu all day and make up stories. What could be better?

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.