As I was straightening the graphic novels in the teen section of my branch library last night, I reflected on how the mess of books strewn everywhere is all Cartoon Network’s fault. Technically it had been made by one eight-year-old boy with spectacularly unobservant parents, but I know the real reason he was over there—Naruto. That ninja has caused more problems in my teen comic section than any superhero ever did. How so? Simple. Because Cartoon Network aired Naruto during their now-defunct Toonami line up, parents think that a comic written for teens is appropriate for their five-year-old. And if one teen comic is appropriate, then the others in the teen section must be okay, also. After all, they’re just comics, right?
Now I am just as much a Naruto fan as the next fangirl, and it amuses me to no end to listen to the teens in my library’s anime club debate whether Sasuke is hotter than Gara. (They’re wrong. Iruka is the hottest.) But as a librarian, I often find myself in the position of having to explain to parents why Naruto is not intended for their young children. A coworker once mentioned that her young nephew, age six, watches Naruto and asked if she should get him the manga for his birthday. When I asked about her sister’s opinion on violence, she said her sister tries to limit the amount of violence her children are exposed to. I then opened volume four of Naruto to pages 62-63, which is a two-page spread showing Naruto’s teacher punching through the chest of a teenaged ninja from a rival village during a battle.
Teens or adults reading this can see the ramifications of this action in the faces and body language of the characters. But is a six-year-old reader savvy enough or mature enough to understand what is happening and why? Can a six-year-old reading this look at the violence and the characters’ reactions to it and understand how the hero struggles to balance his need to protect those around him with the anguish of taking a life? As a child of the seventies and eighties, I watched plenty of Looney Tunes cartoons growing up, so I’m not advocating removing violence from cartoons completely. But as a child, when I watched Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote, the characters didn’t look like me, nor did they bleed or look seriously injured when they got hurt, so I knew it was a joke. That’s not the case with comics like Naruto. Because they are written for older readers, these stories have a grounding in reality. Wile E. Coyote never stayed permanently flat after being squashed by an anvil. Bugs Bunny never lost a body part. But Naruto bleeds and Kakashi, his teacher, is missing an eye. Therein lies a huge difference in comics for written for teens and comics written for children.
And now VIZ is releasing chapter book versions of Naruto’s adventures, kid-sized novels for the elementary school set. Coming from a company that has released good, kid-appropriate manga titles such as Dragon Drive and Cowa, I’m disappointed that they couldn’t find another, better way to market the already phenomenally popular Naruto. I agree that they should continue to sell Naruto-related items—it’s good business—but I wish they’d keep them age-appropriate. And if what they want to do is catch the market for kids’ books, then I as a librarian welcome them. Please release more comics for kids, but make them actually comics for children, not just dumbed down, sanitized versions of works originally meant for teenagers.
A few weeks ago, I was shelving in my teen section when a mom and her two daughters, probably ages ten and six, began browsing. I smiled, welcomed them, and then gently mentioned to the mother that they were in the teen comics section, that the books there are rated for ages 13+ or 16+, and that we do have a children’s comic section. I offered to show them some titles from that section that might appeal to her girls. She just shrugged, as if to say, “Eh, what can I do about what they want to read?” I smiled again and moved on, as her six-year-old continued to choose between the high school romances Peach Girl and Boys Over Flowers. In the end, it’s not my place to raise her children and she has the right to let them read what they want. But I wonder if she’s really ready to explain to her daughter what’s going on in those panels, and I wonder if she’ll come back and complain to the library about the content when she does.