Welcome to the first installment of Good Manga for Kids! Each month I’ll be highlighting three or four new titles for eight-to-twelve-year-old manga fans. Though my reviews will cover the basics—plot, characters, overall quality—I’ll also address issues of special concern to parents and librarians, noting any objectionable content and identifying the most likely audience for each series.
This month’s column examines three recent releases: Happy Happy Clover (Viz), an all-ages title about a plucky rabbit and her forest friends; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Viz), a two-volume series based on the popular video game; and Nui! (Broccoli Books), a comedy about a teen whose stuffed animals come to life.
Happy Happy Clover, Vol. 1
By Sayuri Tatsuyama
Viz, 192 pp.
Publisher’s Rating: A (All Ages)
Like Beatrix Potter’s most famous books—The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny—Happy Happy Clover features a mischievous rabbit whose curiosity lands her in the soup. (Figuratively speaking, of course!) Clover, the title character, is exuberant, talkative, and impulsive, a natural leader and risk-taker whose best friend Mallow is just the opposite. The two attend Professor Hoot’s Academy with their pals Kale and Shallot, two male rabbits whose personalities mirror Clover and Mallow’s. (Kale is adventurous; Shallot is bespectacled and cautious.) Their circle of friends include Cinnamon, a cunning fox; Hickory, a flying squirrel; Blackberry, a young cub; and Rambler, a peripatetic rabbit who occasionally stops in Crescent Forest to sing songs and share tales of the road.
Volume one is divided into twelve stand-alone stories, each about fifteen pages long. Though the chapters follow the same basic template, author Sayuri Tatsuyama avoids the twin pitfalls of repetition and didacticism. In “Lucky 4-Leaf Clover,” for example, Clover boldly saunters into a vegetable patch despite Professor Hoot’s dire warning about humans, only to encounter a pitchfork-wielding farmer. “Sextuplets Alert!”, another standout, puts Clover in charge of Kale’s six younger brothers for a day. Though Clover imagines herself as the sextuplets’ "cool big sister," their quicksilver moods and destructive antics quickly test her patience. Both stories are neatly resolved through a judicious mixture of suspense and humor, offering young readers a gentle lesson about exercising good judgment.
Much as I would like to recommend Happy Happy Clover for everyone, the artwork is far more likely to appeal to girls than boys. The animals are drawn in a cute, stylized fashion with big, expressive eyes and tiny noses, while the backgrounds abound in the sparkling screen tones and floral patterns associated with shojo romances. Though its G-rated content makes Happy Happy Clover an OK choice for first or second graders, younger readers may struggle with the vocabulary and tiny typeface.
The bottom line: Happy Happy Clover is a cute, fun read that’s most likely to appeal to girls who have outgrown Beatrix Potter but aren’t quite ready to graduate to Shojo Beat. Recommended for ages 8 and up, though tweens may find the stories a little too pat for their tastes.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Parts 1 & 2
By Akira Himekawa
Viz, 192 pp.
Publisher’s Rating: A (All Ages)
The Legend of Zelda unfolds in the kingdom of Hyrule, where Link, an elfin boy, lives with the Kikori. After years of feeling like a misfit among his adopted tribesmen, Link discovers that he is, in fact, a nobleman with a greater purpose: to defend Hyrule’s subjects from the evil Lord Ganondorf, who covets a sacred object known as the Triforce. Link sets out to locate this magical object before Ganondorf can, lest Ganondorf use the Triforce’s power to plunge the world into a state of permanent darkness. As he searches for the Triforce, Link must also locate Princess Zelda, the future leader of Hyrule and steward of another sacred object—the Ocarina of Time, a flute that plays an essential role in unlocking the Triforce’s powers.
Given its origins as a videogame, it’s hardly surprising that The Legend of Zelda traffics in cliché. The characters are stock fantasy types, from the hero who prefers impulsive action over careful planning to the villain bent on world domination. Though the script contains several speeches about the Triforce and its powers, Zelda’s cosmology is surprisingly shallow; we never learn much about Hyrule or its enemies, nor do we learn much about the magical places, characters, and objects that play a pivotal role in the story’s conclusion. Even the geography of Hyrule remains something of a mystery; it’s never entirely clear where its various regions lie in respect to one another, a problem compounded by the unimaginative background illustrations and murky action sequences. (Most of the swordfights and magical showdowns register as mud, thanks to a proliferation of speed lines and dark screentones.)
None of these flaws will matter to young Zelda fans, who will likely find the series’ mixture of monster-fighting, magic, and adventure irresistible. The pace and length of the book are well-suited to the ten-and-up crowd; younger readers may find the script just beyond their reach. Content-wise, Zelda merits a PG rating for mild fantasy violence (in the form of bloodless monster-slaying) and fleeting T&A (in the form of busty warriors in midriff-baring costumes).
The bottom line: Kids who love videogames, fantasy novels, elves, fairies, monsters, or magic will find Zelda an entertaining, fast read. Recommended for ages 10 and up.
Nui!, Vol. 1
By Natsumi Mukai
Broccoli Books, 196 pp.
Publisher’s Rating: E (Everyone)
Kaya Yamase is a shy teen who cherishes her stuffed animals with the same intensity that she did as a child. Through a series of comic mishaps, Kaya discovers that her beloved toys Gray (a dog), Aqua (a fish), and Purple (a monster with jester-like ears) can walk, talk, and transform into cute—albeit slightly odd-looking—boys. She also learns that her “boys” have been silently tailing her to school, the park, and the store in an effort to protect her from harm. Kaya’s life takes a turn for the stranger when she meets Shinri Harihara, a teenager who makes unique stuffed animals for A-list celebrities. Shinri intrigues Kaya, but his cold demeanor and evil sidekick Bianca (a stuffed animal with dual personalities) immediately arouse Purple’s suspicion. Purple then teams up with Gray and Aqua to uncover Shinri’s true interest in Kaya.
I’m on the fence about recommending Nui! On the plus side, the artwork is sharp. Manga-ka Natsumi Mukai’s stuffed characters have surprisingly expressive faces that can register the full gamut of emotions from jealousy to jubilation. Another plus is the script, which yields some surprisingly funny moments as Purple scuffles with cats, dogs, and toddlers in his misguided efforts to defend Kaya’s honor. There are also scenes of genuine pathos, as we learn what happens to stuffed animals whose owners have outgrown their attachment to toys. On the minus side, Mukai seems awfully fond of stalking as a plot device. At least three different male characters take an unhealthy interest in Kaya at various points in the story—and that figure doesn’t include her posse of self-appointed bodyguards. There’s also some very mild fan service: a brief glimpse of Kaya in her skivvies, a brief exchange between Purple and Kaya about a revealing bathing suit.
The bottom line: Nui! will appeal to slightly older tweens, especially those who have just begun to explore the world of boys, malls, and make-up but aren’t quite ready to abandon their favorite childhood possessions. Recommended for ages 12 and up. N.B. The second and third volumes are on hold until another publisher acquires the license from the now-defunct Broccoli Books.