About the Author
Janet Tashjian is the author of the popular My Life series including My Life as a Book, My Life as a Stuntboy, My Life as a Cartoonist, My Life as a Joke, and My Life as a Gamer, as well as the Einstein the Class Hamster series, illustrated by her son, Jake Tashjian. Jake and Janet live in Sherman Oaks, California.
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My Life as a Ninja
By Janet Tashjian, Jake Tashjian
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2017 Janet Tashjian
All rights reserved.
"Cowabunga!" I jump out from behind the credenza, blocking my mother's path as she walks by with a stack of mail.
"Derek! You have to stop scaring me!" She sprints across the room to pick up the envelopes falling to the floor.
Ever since my friends and I were lucky enough to test the Arctic Ninja video game for Global Games, we've been obsessed with ninjas. The game took place in the Arctic but my friends and I live in Los Angeles, so the climate is a lot different.
Mom tries to reach a stray paper that fell underneath the couch. "I'm pretty sure cowabunga is a surfer word and not a ninja war cry."
My bewildered mother doesn't realize it's also Michelangelo's catchphrase from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Lately my friends and I have been moving away from turtle culture to REAL ninjas. And that means reading a lot of graphic novels from Japan.
With my reading disability, longer books can sometimes be difficult so I like novels with lots of illustrations. I've been drawing my vocabulary words since elementary school and always look for a way to connect words to pictures.
When Mom suggests watching a martial arts movie after dinner, I jump at the chance. Literally.
My dive from the pantry to the couch spills my mom's paperwork all over again.
But stopping is the last thing I'll do.
In fact, I'm just getting started.CHAPTER 2
My Ninja Friends
Because Matt, Umberto, Carly, and I are equally consumed with the world of ninjas, we check out martial arts classes to take together. Carly did the research, of course, looking for the closest school with the best program.
"There's one in Santa Monica with a famous sensei." She turns to me. "Sensei means 'teacher.'"
"I KNOW WHAT SENSEI MEANS! Just because I'm not a good reader doesn't mean I'm stupid."
Carly rolls her eyes. "I'm not saying you're stupid. I just didn't think you knew Japanese."
Matt comes to my defense. "Derek eats sushi, doesn't he? Of course he knows Japanese."
The day hasn't even started and already Carly's had it with Matt and me. Umberto pulls up in his wheelchair just in time to change the subject.
"Did you hear Ms. McCoddle's looking for a volunteer to run the class play?"
Carly's ears perk up. If there's ever a chance to impress a teacher or get extra credit, Carly is first in line. She asks Umberto for details.
"All I know is, this year's theme is the American Revolution and Ms. McCoddle's searching for a director." Umberto pops a wheelie in his chair. "I wonder if colonists had wheelchairs back in the seventeen hundreds."
We argue about that for several minutes — Carly and I say no, Matt says yes — until it's finally time for class.
Sure enough, Ms. McCoddle brings up the play as soon as we take our seats. She talks about what a great schoolwide event it will be while I draw ninjas in the margins of my notebook. (My favorite is a miniature ninja hiding behind a pair of salt and pepper shakers.)
Ms. McCoddle seems more relaxed than she was when Matt and I first had her in kindergarten; now she's one of the most respected teachers in our school.
"I'm not looking for someone who's directed a play before," Ms. McCoddle continues. "Just someone passionate about history."
In the time it takes for me to draw a mustache on my ninja, Carly's raised her hand. Ms. McCoddle is used to Carly signing up for everything, so she scans the room first to make sure she's not leaving anybody out. But with Maria absent, Carly's the only one in class remotely interested in directing a history play and she gets the job.
Matt and I skateboard home after school and look up the martial arts school Carly found online.
"It seems too tame," Matt says. "I was hoping for something more ninja-y."
I click on some other schools that have classes in the area. "How about this one?"
Matt lets out a long whistle. "The Way of the Thunder Shadow. Now THAT'S what I'm talking about."
When Dad gets home, I ask if he can take us to check out the martial arts class tomorrow. He marks it on his phone calendar and says sure.
My dad's been much happier since he started working again. After being laid off from his job as a storyboard artist for almost a year, he finally started doing artwork for a guerrilla marketing company. At first I thought it was GORILLA marketing, which would be awesome, especially if we could introduce our capuchin monkey, Frank, to a real gorilla. But it turns out my dad's company does groundbreaking advertising campaigns instead — much less fun than hanging out with gorillas.
Matt and I search for the video controllers, which we finally find wedged between the cushions of the couch.
"You know it's a matter of time before Carly ropes us into helping her with that play."
Matt nods as he loads the latest version of Rayman. "We'll be too busy spying on people and practicing martial arts to help," he answers. "Real ninjas don't have time to paint scenery for a play."
He's right, but I also know Carly can be very persuasive. I hope this doesn't come down to choosing between two of my best friends.CHAPTER 3
Mom runs her veterinary practice from the office adjacent to our house, so that means there's always lots of people and their pets coming up and down the driveway. As Dad gets ready to drive Matt, Carly, and me to the martial arts studio, we're stopped by a woman walking a ferret on a leash.
The ferret wears a top hat and a tutu of colorful feathers. The poor animal looks like a Muppet with pink plumage.
"Please say Dr. Fallon can help Zippy with his stage fright. He's performing tonight and he's a wreck!" The woman coos and whispers to the ferret, who seems like he'd rather be anywhere else.
Dad assures her Mom has experience with lots of different animals and shows the woman to the office.
"You should totally get Frank a top hat," Matt says. "But definitely not a tutu."
"Frank needs a Lakers T-shirt," Carly says. "He watches more basketball on TV than I do."
My family and I are the foster home for Frank until he's old enough to go to Monkey College to learn to help people with physical disabilities do things like open doors, turn on lights, and fetch water bottles. Lately he's turned into a giant sports fan too, watching TV alongside me and my dog, Bodi.
I wanted Frank to wear one of those foam fingers they sell at games, but Mom was afraid he'd eat it. I fought her like crazy but she put her foot down. I guess it's a good thing she did because when I went to find the finger under my bed, Frank had already chewed it to a stub. Luckily he was okay; I on the other hand received yet another lecture on responsibility.
We finally pile in the car and head to the martial arts studio. Because Carly wanted us to join the other studio in Santa Monica, she complains for a bit until we hit the highway. Umberto called the studio yesterday to see if they could accommodate him in a wheelchair but they said there would be a lot of kicking and mat work in class and he'd be better off studying with the instructor one-on-one. It's a shame because Umberto's the funniest kid I know and he'd be hilarious to have in class. Umberto said he didn't mind, but I wonder if that's true.
On the drive over, Carly talks about directing the play and Matt shoots me an I-Told-You-So face. We pretend to listen until Dad pulls into the parking lot of the dojo. He gets lots of texts at his new job — even on weekends — so he returns phone calls outside while the three of us go in.
The first person we see is a twenty-something guy wearing a black gi who introduces himself as Dave. I try not to stare — the guy is lean and mean with a shaved head and pierced eyebrows. He might be the scariest guy I've ever seen in real life, so I'm surprised when his voice is quiet and I can barely hear him.
"Welcome to the Way of the Thunder Shadow," he says. "A place where discipline and action unite."
The studio is dimly lit with black folding chairs in the waiting room. The walls are painted black with one wall of mirrors. Everything is black or red, except for the small fern withering in a pot by the door.
"Do you have an appointment with Sensei Takai?" Dave asks.
I tell him we do and that we're interested in their Junior Ninja classes.
Dave slowly bows. "Sensei Takai will be with you soon."
The three of us sit in the darkened room and wait for what seems like an eternity. (Turns out, it was only about five minutes.)
An old man with the most erect posture I've ever seen enters the room quietly; Carly jumps out of her chair when she realizes he's standing beside her.
We wait for the sensei to speak but he just looks at us and smiles. After a few awkward minutes, I blurt out why we're here. "We want to be ninjas and we heard you're a great sensei."
The old man continues to stare and smile while the three of us fidget.
The sensei wears a shinobi shozoku and head scarf covering everything except his eyes, and canvas tabi boots with split toes and rubber soles. All of his clothing is black. He looks like every ninja in every movie I've ever seen except he's old and standing perfectly still. We follow his lead and try to sit quietly.
Almost ten minutes later, he clears his throat to speak. His voice is even quieter than Dave's, so the three of us have to lean in to hear him.
"Welcome to my dojo," he says with a bow.
We made a list of several questions we wanted to ask but now the three of us just take turns looking at one another, not sure what to do next.
"Today's lesson is over," Sensei Takai says. "You practice until next time."
"Practice what?" Carly asks.
Sensei Takai smiles, then waves his hand to dismiss us.
"But what are we supposed to do?" Carly asks again.
He bows one more time and leaves the room.
Carly spends most of her time trying to get everything just right, so an assignment with no instructions is unacceptable.
"It's obvious what we're supposed to do," Matt says when we're outside. "Right, Derek?"
I smirk like of course I know, but I have absolutely no idea. Carly calls my bluff immediately.
"You guys are as clueless as I am, so stop pretending you're not!"
Matt and I finally admit we don't know what Sensei Takai expects us to practice.
"I didn't think being a ninja was going to be so complicated," Matt says. "I thought we could just act like spies."
I spot my dad at the coffee shop across the street. He waves and points to his phone, indicating he's almost finished with his call.
"The question is, are we coming back next week?" I ask my friends.
Carly shakes her head. "I hate not knowing what's expected of me."
"Welcome to my world," I say.
On the way home, Dad lets us stop for burgers and fries. Over our meal, we tell him about the session with Sensei Takai.
"Aren't ninjas trained in trickery?" Dad asks. "Maybe Sensei Takai is not telling you what to practice on purpose."
Matt, Carly, and I exchange glances. Have we just been tricked by a ninja?CHAPTER 4
A School Mystery
When we get to school on Monday, Mr. Demetri calls an emergency assembly. As we file in, the principal paces across the stage, impatiently waiting for us to take our seats. When he finally gets to the podium, he doesn't look happy.
"There was an act of vandalism at the school this weekend. And you KNOW how I feel about vandalism."
He doesn't need to remind us how he reacts to destruction of school property. Last year some kids from the high school broke several windows on a crime spree and Mr. Demetri didn't rest until they were caught.
Mr. Demetri motions to Ms. Mateo, the assistant principal, and a slide fills the screen behind him. It's an illustration of a demented Minotaur that looks like it's spray-painted on the back of the school. A few kids start to laugh at the odd-looking creature but one look at our principal's face shuts them up fast.
"I will not tolerate this," Mr. Demetri continues. "Whoever is responsible will be brought to justice, mark my words."
Ms. Mateo gets up and makes a few announcements about the school play, mentioning there's a sign-up sheet outside the cafeteria. Carly beams when her name is mentioned as the director.
As we head back to class, Umberto skids his wheelchair, blocking our path. "You know what this whole vandalism thing means, don't you?"
"It means Mr. Demetri's going to want someone's head on a platter," Matt says.
But I know what Umberto's thinking because I'm thinking the same thing. "It means our school needs a hero."
"It means our school needs a spy," Matt says.
"I'm not sure I like where this is going," Carly says.
Matt, Umberto, and I say the next line in unison: "It means our school needs a NINJA!"CHAPTER 5
Using Our Spy Skills
Carly tries to get us to brainstorm ideas for the American Revolution play but Matt, Umberto, and I have bigger fish to fry.
We agree the first thing to do is examine the evidence. We head to the back of the school but Mr. Demetri has roped off the area with yellow caution tape.
"I feel like we're on the set of a crime show," I say. "It's not like someone was murdered here."
"Plus, that tape doesn't hide the graffiti." Umberto wheels his chair under the caution tape as if it's not even there.
The large Minotaur is drawn with dark purple paint. The bull's expression is sinister, with a toothy grin. The human body is muscular but his hands drag on the ground like an ape.
"Looks like the kind of thing you would draw," Matt says.
I shake my head in disagreement. "My version would be much more cartoony."
Umberto backs up and studies the rest of the wall. "We should find out if other drawings were made around town or if this is the only one."
It's a shame Umberto can't join us for classes at the Way of the Thunder Shadow because his ninja instincts are the best in the group.
We sit on one of the picnic tables behind the school and tell Umberto about Sensei Takai's silent treatment. Umberto acts like the whole routine makes perfect sense.
"Ninjas have to be stealthy," he says. "And you can't be stealthy if you're not quiet. Ninjas are experts in silence."
"Who wants to be silent?" I ask.
Umberto smiles. "If you're not quiet, people can hear you coming. Plus, ninjas don't want anyone knowing who they are, so you have to be silent about that too."
"What good is being a ninja if you can't TELL anyone you're a ninja?" Matt asks. "This whole thing's starting to sound like a lot of work."
Umberto tells us Sensei Takai was probably forcing us to pay attention to what was around us. "We can practice silence now by studying the Minotaur drawing to see if we can learn anything."
It usually takes enormous concentration for me to keep quiet in school, and now I'm supposed to be quiet OUTSIDE of it too? But Umberto's focused on the Minotaur, as if some clue will suddenly burst out of its giant nostrils.
After a minute, I can't take it anymore and jump off the table. "There's something else ninjas have that we don't have — ninja clothes!"
Matt says he looked for some online but his mom said they were too expensive for what might turn out to be one of Matt's many short-lived hobbies.
"My cousin has a white karate outfit I can borrow," Umberto says.
"I have lots of old gym clothes," Matt says. "But ninjas always wear black."
And just like that, I know what we're doing for the rest of the afternoon.CHAPTER 6
Paint It Black
The first thing I do when we get to my house is make sure Mom's in her office. We're in luck — the waiting room is full of people with dogs and cats, and with Dad at his new job, the coast is clear.
Matt stops at his house to gather extra sweatpants and shirts, which will soon be transformed into our awesome ninja outfits. Umberto has his video game design class, so it's just Matt and me since Carly stayed after school to work on the play.
"I raided the box in the basement that my mom keeps for charity." Matt enters the kitchen with a giant handful of clothes. "She had liquid dye in the laundry room too."
He tosses me a plastic bottle of dye and I scramble to catch it before it hits the floor. I stare at the white porcelain sink and ask Matt if the dye will stain it.
"Of course it'll stain — it's dye!"
Excerpted from My Life as a Ninja by Janet Tashjian, Jake Tashjian. Copyright © 2017 Janet Tashjian. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
My Ninja Friends,
A School Mystery,
Paint It Black,
Our First Class,
Using Our Spy Skills,
Umberto Saves the Day,
Frank and Bodi,
Saturday with Dad,
You Want Us to What?,
Things Get Serious,
Rehearsing with Carly,
Someone New to Spy On,
My First Office Party,
What to Do,
Espionage in the Woods,
A Rash Decision,
Time to Spy,
You Call This Spying?,
Yet Another Surprise,
Lying in Wait,
Trapped in a Tree,
All's Well That Ends Well,
Read All the Books in the My Life Series,
Other Books by Janet Tashjian,
Praise for the My Life Series,
About the Author,
About the Illustrator,
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