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Interview – Jim Zubkavich on UDON kids manga

In January at the ALA Midwinter conference, project manager, Jim Zubkavich introduced the library world to the new UDON Kids line with an impassioned speech recounting how comics and specifically manga turned him into a lifelong reader. And now he’s on a mission to do with same with kids today, with the help of librarians, of course.

Diamond Books Kids Director Janna Morishima suggested that UDON take a look at look at the line of manga that would become UDON Kids. Morishima described the books as “the Scholastic of Japan.”

UDON promises that this new line of manga for kids will not only be packed full of fun, appealing adventures for an upcoming generation of readers but the books will not have any surprise nudity, inappropriate language or over-the-top violence, which has been something librarians have had to keep a close eye on especially as a series progresses.

I’ve known Jim for years now so it was easy to ask him some tough questions on where UDON Kids will fit in the world of manga for kids.

Scott: Tell us a bit about how the UDON Kids line came about.

Jim: The UDON Kids line came about from conversations we’d had internally about where the manga/graphic novel market seems to be heading as well as our own staff growing older and having children.

The manga market is growing up and we’re going to see a generational shift in those readers. Manga readers are getting older and they’re having kids or have nieces and nephews or younger brothers and sisters who are interested by the style and storytelling in manga. Having age appropriate manga content for that age group and being able to introduce new readers to comics and manga has business potential but is also something we feel strongly about as fans of manga and anime as a whole. There’s a new generation of potential readers and manga is a fantastic way to enable that lifelong love of reading. So, in brief, the UDON Kids line grew out of our love of manga and the potential for a line of books that could tap into the excitement of manga to ignite the minds of young readers.

SR: The market is currently and has been for a while flooded with titles – what will make UDON’s kids manga stand out from the rest? What makes them different from what is currently being offered to the 7-12 age group?

JZ: The manga market is definitely saturated with titles and it can be a confusing time for readers and retailers to find quality content within that mass of material. The vast majority of the manga in stores is focuses on material for ages 13+ and much of that skews older rather than younger in terms of showing violence, complex relationships and sexual content. What few manga titles there are for readers 7-12 are tied in to toy lines, functioning as mass market advertising for other products. Our UDON Kids books (and our Manga For Kids website) are dedicated to titles for ages 7-12 that are completely age appropriate and feature high quality stories and artwork that can stand on their own as great books. Our four launch titles cover a range of genres that kids and adults can immediately identify with and enjoy – fantasy, music, sports and sci-fi – and the content has been carefully chosen and translated so that it’s appropriate for young readers, libraries and book fairs.

SR: What are kids going to like most about these books and how will they relate to them?

JZ: Many manga stories revolve around young, self-reliant characters going on adventures, large or small, and making new friends while learning important things about themselves and the world around them. These characters, with their struggles and strong emotions, tap into fundamental themes of growing up and gaining confidence in a way that engages readers of all ages. At its core, the UDON Kids line embraces these story conventions too, only with content that’s 100% appropriate for kids age 7-12. The art is fun and energetic, the characters are engaging and the stories showcase a nice variety of adventure and fun.
SR: With the first four titles, you pretty much have all the bases covered – ninjas and sports for a boy audience and fairies mixed with American Idol and magic for girls. Swans in Space is a bit of departure considering it’s not only one of the first full-color manga titles available but it’s also a book difficult to categorize. What do you see as the appeal and the audience for this book?

JZ: All of our launch titles showcase a fun spread of genres – The Big Adventures of Majoko is whimsical exploration and fantasy, Ninja Baseball Kyuma is sports action and comradere and Fairy Idol Kanon is about music, teamwork and magic. Swans in Space is quite possibly my favorite of the launch titles because, at its heart, it’s a science-fiction comedy title for girls. It’s far too easy to categorize girls and boys fiction iand assume that young female readers only want stories about romance, princesses or other typical ‘pink and flowery’ fare. One of the great things about manga as a whole is the sheer amount of variety – historical dramas, romantic comedies, chilling horror and mysteries are all well represented in manga, unlike most North American comics. Finding a high quality genre title like Swans in Space that’s exciting, fun and distinctly female but also science fiction shows the possibilities inherent in manga and gives girls more choices in what they’re reading. In short – Female characters can be adventurous astronauts, they can go on space missions and they can explore the galaxy. It’s a delightful title in rich full colour that doesn’t pander to female stereotypes and I’m proud that it’s one of our launch books. I hope it’s a big hit with educators and librarians.

* Click here to see a review of Swans in Space by GC4K blogger Eva Volin.
** The full colour artwork is really something readers have never seen before – click here to see a preview of Swans in Space.

SR: Are there plans to expand the line and what kinds of book would you like to add to the collection?

JZ: We have some other titles that we’ve found in Japan which could serve well as a ‘second wave’ of UDON Kids if our launch books do well. We’ve also talked internally about working with Japanese artists to collaborate with writers here in North America and create original content specific for the UDON Kids line if it’s extremely successful. In the mean time we’re focused on making these four launch titles as strong as possible and putting up extra resources on the Manga For Kids website to help educators and librarians get the most out of the books.

The Big Adventures of Majoko and Ninja Baseball Kyuma are available now with Fairy Idol Kanon and Swans in Space following in May and June, respectively.

Scott Robins About Scott Robins

Scott Robins is a librarian at the Toronto Public Library and the co-author of A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics. He is the children's programming director for the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival. He has also served on the graphic novel selection committee for the Canadian Children's Book Centre's Best Books for Kids and Teens and is a jury member of the Joe Shuster Awards in the "Comics for Kids" category.


  1. “Swans in Space is a bit of departure considering it’s not only one of the first full-color manga titles available but it’s also a book difficult to categorize.”

    Science fiction was ultra popular in shoujo manga (comic books for girls) during part of the 70’s and 80’s. Most of horror manga published in Japan is also aimed at female readers.

    Manga for girls are much more varied in content than chick lit for example, with fantasy, sci-fi, horror.
    It’s different from the US, where only sappy romance is considered to be aimed at girls.

  2. BTW, sports manga are also a big part of girls manga too. Sports manga isn’t considered to be a boys only thing, and many Japanese women played sports intensively during their school years, unlike in many Western countries where a lot more boys play sports than girls, since sports is a big part of Japanese education.

    Except sports mangas for girls usually cover different sports than boys’ manga, like volley ball, tennis, ice skating, ballet etc. They can be as hot blooded as boys’ manga and show the players efforts and tears and blood.

  3. horro r and fantasy is also big in US with girls. just look at the young adults section in book stores. ie. goosebumps etc etc. but they’re just no popular comic books in these genre before shojo manga came to US. there was not comic books for girls before shojo manga period…(well nothing that hit the critical mass like shojo)

  4. Katherine Dacey says:

    Welcome back, Scott–it’s nice to see you blogging again! I had high hopes for the Udon Kids Line when I received my review copies of Ninja Baseball Kyuma and Fairy Idol Kanon. (I reviewed both for the March installment of Good Manga for Kids; posted 3/31.) Though I found the artwork and content age-appropriate, the tone struck me as too didactic for most grade schoolers. Both books are filled with speeches about self-esteem and doing your best that interrupt the flow of the story. I’m also disappointed that Udon has taken such a gendered approach to marketing. When I was seven, I might have read Ninja Baseball Kyuma (if only for the cute ninja dog), but I wouldn’t have touched Fairy Idol Kanon with a ten-foot pole. Way too girly for a tomboy like me.

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