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Good manga for kids, June 2010

This month’s column marks a sad milestone: the last time I’ll be writing about a new or recent kid-friendly title from CMX. Throughout its six-year existence, CMX licensed a variety of titles for readers in the eight-to-twelve range. And while some of these titles bordered on the insipid, many were excellent, offering kids age-appropriate stories that didn’t talk down to them and didn’t read like advertising for a television show, video game, or toy line. Let’s hope that other manga publishers make an effort to fill the void that CMX left with more titles for the pre-teen crowd.

The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, Vols. 1-6 (complete)
By Nari Kusikawa
Rating: E (Everyone)
CMX Manga

This delightful, all-ages title has something for everyone: appealing characters, adorable animals, pirates and high-seas adventure, magic, and G-rated romance. The story focuses on Cello, a wizard-in-training. Cello attends a unique academy on the tropical island of Opal, where students study to become palettes, or color magicians. Each palette learns how to borrow color from Opal’s exotically hued birds and “paint” objects with those colors. Alas, Cello is a poor study and frequently stains herself the same bright pink as her beloved bird Yoyo, earning herself numerous trips infirmary to restore her proper skin tone and hair color. As a result, she befriends the academy’s doc-in-residence Guell, a grumpy but good-natured palette who always gets swept up in Cello’s misadventures, whether thwarting a group of poachers or tutoring a group of precocious tots.

As the series progresses, it becomes more and more obvious to the reader that Cello and Guell’s friendship is shading into romance. Nari Kusakawa allows their feelings to develop in a slow but natural fashion over the first four volumes, bringing the question of how they feel about each other to a head in volume five. The scenes in which Cello and Guell use friends as sounding boards for exploring their feelings are handled with sensitivity; tweens and young teens in the throes of their first crushes will find these passages especially resonant.

Though the series has considerable charm, there’s a big drawback to The Palette of 12 Secret Colors: it’s monochromatic, making it difficult for readers to distinguish “blue” swatches from “yellow” or “pink” ones. Working with this limited color scheme, Kusikawa does muster some visual pizzazz, populating Opal with a comical assortment of birds of varied shapes, sizes, and temperaments. She’s also created a terrific heroine in Cello, whose relentless optimism and powerful but unrefined technique seem better suited for a shonen tournament series than a cute shojo romance. Cello is a refreshing change of pace from the typical self-doubting, wishy-washy magical girl, and The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is all the better for her brash confidence and unkempt appearance.

Objectionable Content: Some parents may feel uncomfortable about the chaste romance between Cello and Guell, since Guell is, in essence, Cello’s teacher.

The Bottom Line: Nari Kusakawa writes terrific fantasy-adventures for pre-teen girls, acknowledging their interest in romance in an age-appropriate fashion without making other plotlines take a back seat to the love story. Her heroines are always plucky and resourceful, even if they need a little assistance getting out of jams. For girls who’ve outgrown Disney princesses but aren’t quite ready for the more mature content in series like Vampire Knight or The Wallflower, The Palette of 12 Secret Colors makes a great choice.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared at PopCultureShock.

The World I Create
By Ayami Kazama
Rating: E (Everyone)
2010, CMX Manga, ISBN: 9-781401-22493
162 pp., $9.99

The four stories that comprise The World I Create focus on high school students training to become “projectionists,” or visual magicians who use a special lantern to create illusions. Each chapter follows a different pair of students — one male, one female — as they wrestle with normal teenage problems. In the “The Sky That Enchants You,” for example, the two lowest-ranking members of the first-year class are assigned to study together for an exam they both repeatedly fail, while in “Little Girl’s Close Game,” a pint-sized girl uses her talent to show up a boy who mocked her stature.

Given the premise, the art for The World I Create should have been imaginative and eye-popping, but the characters’ “projections” are pedestrian (e.g. a sunset, a shoreline, a sky raining money), even though their conversations imply that what we’re seeing is breath-taking in its beauty and creativity. (Like The Palette of 12 Secret Colors, The World I Create would have benefited from color.) The storylines are a similarly mixed bag. Though the first one addresses the issue of jealousy and competition in a sincere, if obvious, manner, the title story comes perilously close to suggesting that it’s OK for a girl to choose her boyfriend over her own personal dreams. (The heroine, Chiho, only decides to embrace her talent as a projectionist when her boyfriend encourages her to do so.) A faint whiff of sexism hangs over “Little Girl’s Close Game” as well, as the heroine’s rival acknowledges his defeat by “adopting” the underclassman as his “pet.” I think we’re meant to see their master-dog dynamic as cute, but from an adult perspective, it’s disappointing to see a manga artist diminish her own female characters in such a fashion.

Objectionable Content: There’s an undercurrent of sexism in the final two stories, but nothing overt.

The Bottom Line: The World I Create isn’t bad, but lacks the imaginative spark needed to realize the full potential of its interesting premise. Best for tweens in the nine-to-twelve range.

Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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