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GC4K Book Club: Twin Spica

Eva Volin

Every librarian who does readers advisory has a handful of go-to books at the ready for those kids who don’t like anything or have already read everything.  These are slam dunk, home run, money back guarantee books that turn you into a hero in the eyes of happy readers. For me, Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Game is one of those books.  But there are just enough hot button topics in the books (of the sex/violence/ swearing variety) to keep me from recommending the book to most middle schoolers. But thanks to Twin Spica, I just may have found that perfect middle school space opera that will also satisfy teen and adult readers, just as Ender’s Game crosses over to both the teen and adult readership.  But to be sure, I asked my fellow book clubbers to weigh in.

Twin Spica
Kou Yaginuma
Vertical, May 2010, ISBN 978-1-934287-84-2
192 pages, $10.95

Many thanks to Vertical for providing enough review copies to go around.

From the book: “Does Asumi have the right stuff?  In a Tokyo of the not-too-distant future a young girl looks up to the stars with melancholy in her heart and hope in her eyes.  Thirteen-year-old Asumi Kamogawa’s whole life has been tied to those stars; her future may very well be among them.  And she is not alone…  Asumi is just one of many young people with ambitions to become a member of the first class admitted to the Tokyo Space School.”

One of the things I like best about this book is the character of Mr. Lion.  Is he a ghost?  An imaginary friend?  Either way, he acts to nurture Asmui and encourage her to achieve her dreams in a way that Asumi’s grief-stricken father can’t seem to do. Does this character work for you? And how do you feel about the way the author juxtaposes Mr. Lion and Asumi’s father?

Esther Keller: I wasn’t sure what to think when I heard the title Twin Spica or when I finally had it in my hand. I’m not a huge sci/fi fan, though I can read and enjoy the genre.  I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed Twin Spica.  I already put whatever titles are available on order for the coming school year.

Oh. I’m glad I’m not the only one who liked Mr. Lion.  There was something very endearing about the character.  The way he was always there in the background for Asumi, helping her along the way.  And yes, Eva, I agree, it’s in a way her father couldn’t seem to do.  I started out thinking that Mr. Lion was an imaginary friend.  Someone Asumi had conjured up to help deal with her mother’s death. But as the story unfolds, I actually started to wonder if he was a ghost and think that it might be clarified in later volumes.

As for how Mr. Lion juxtaposes with Asumi’s father? Well, it saddened me a bit. Because whether a ghost or an imaginary friend, Mr. Lion is not quite real. Not in a tangible way. And he was offering the support & even love that Asumi needed from her father. Meanwhile, you see that Asumi’s father cares deeply, but he can’t find a way past the sadness to be there in a way that Asumi needs. So while her father is real and is there, his ability to show his love isn’t quite tangible. And while Mr. Lion isn’t quite real, his love is very tangible for Asumi.  That’s sad!

Robin Brenner: I really enjoyed Mr. Lion.  I agree with you, Esther, that the slow build of just what or who Mr. Lion is promises an interesting development.  I’m leaning toward ghost myself, or at least someone living like a ghost (a survivor of the original shuttle crash, perhaps?)

Eva, I think you nailed the appeal of this book in comparing it to Ender’s Game (but how nice to have a smart, engaging girl as the lead!).  I grew up curious about space travel, even though I’m younger than the traditional space race generation, and I’ve never really given up on the idea of traveling beyond our planet.  Twin Spica maintains an almost retro optimism about space travel, an optimism I find refreshing amid all the gloom and doom about our actual potential for space travel at the moment.

This is also clearly a story about an emotional journey as well as the rigorous puzzles and tests that these young aspiring astronauts must pass to make it to the stars.  That mixture (which again worked so vividly in Ender’s Game) will I think engage a variety of readers, both boys and girls, younger teens and on up through adults.

I fear that concentration might also potentially be a drawback for some.  If I’m not mistaken, for a lot of readers (particularly non sci-fi readers) the emotional pull of this story is key.  Asumi’s way of dealing with her family tragedy, and her journey around her father’s fears for her, lend this a strong core.  However, I can also see traditional science fiction fans being turned off by what they may see as a gooey sentimentality getting in the way of space action.  The initial test for the astronaut candidates is a classic sci-fi trope, but I wonder if readers will get tired of the sidetracks into everyone’s emotional state rather than that more straightforward mission of becoming an astronaut.  Has anyone had any reactions from a traditional sci-fi reader?  Someone who prefers hard science fiction? I’d be curious to hear how they react to the story.

twinspica 214x300 GC4K Book Club: Twin Spica

(As an aside,  I’ve just started reading Mary Roach’s new book Packing for Mars, all about training for space, and the first chapter is all about the Japanese astronaut program. Specifically, she starts off by looking at how each astronaut program whittles down its candidates, and she focuses on the Japanese program where, in their last test before deciding, all of the candidates live in an isolation chamber.  One of their many tasks?  To create 1,000 paper cranes in a short period of time.  So, unsurprisingly, it looks like Twin Spica is based on real testing procedures!)

Esther: Robin, I too was wondering on the appeal of this book. I think I could easily talk it up, but the space travel aspect can be very limiting.  I’m banking on the fact that I loved the title so much, that my enthusiasm will catch on, and the kids will want to try the title. Believe it or not, I had to talk up Runaways a lot when it first came into my library.

Snow Wildsmith: I’m a science fiction fan, or more to the point, was when I was a teenage girl. I started with Anne McCaffrey because my dad, was reading her Pern series and Star Trek, because my dad was watching it. So Twin Spica rang all the right bells for me. My fourteen-year-old self, who devoured Isaac Asimov’s short stories, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang and who looked up into the night sky and tried to see the stars that Captain Kirk talked about seeing when he was a boy, that girl longed to be brave enough to be Asumi. I was–and still am–fascinated by what makes people choose to join a space program or to serve in the military. Of the Star Trek novels that I voraciously read, one of my favorites was The Kobayashi Maru by Julia Eckler, where Kirk and several of his crewmen pass the time while stranded on a disabled shuttlecraft by telling tales of their days at Starfleet Academy. When I read those types of stories, I wanted to feel the emotional power of striving to be the first to walk along the dusty plains of Mars or training to sail through the stars trillions of light-years from Earth.

However, I have never been able to get into Ender’s Game, despite being an Orson Scott Card fan and Asimov’s novels are often too hard-edged for me to appreciate, even though I love his short works. Therein, I think, lies the answer to your question, Robin. Twin Spica will appeal to science-fiction fans who like their action to include a deeper and obvious emotional connection. I can see my father appreciating Twin Spica, but I don’t know that I would hand it to an Ender’s Game fan or even a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan. But for the right reader, I think Yaginuma walks that fine line between giving the details of astronaut training and giving us a connection with Asumi, only occasionally slipping into overly sentimental. By comparison, I felt that Saturn Apartments, vol. 1 by Hisae Iwaoka (VIZ)–another recent science fiction manga–was too focused on the emotions. It didn’t give me enough details about the science of living in space and surviving. It brushed by them a little, but not with the focus I wanted it to have. Twin Spica gave me both.

As for Mr. Lion, frankly I thought he was an angel. That seemed the simplest explanation. Since he was the astronaut who died in the crash that killed Asumi’s mother, he decided to stay and watch over Asumi. So for me, the juxtaposition is not with Mr. Lion and Asumi’s father. It’s with Mr. Lion and Asumi. His life ended almost when hers began. He is watching over her to help make sure she gets to live her dreams, just as he–albeit imperfectly–got to live his. It’s almost as if he was trying to fill the void left behind when he took Asumi’s mother from her.

Lori Henderson: I really liked Mr. Lion. By making him look like the mascot for the failed mission, it creates ambiguity as to who or what he really is, leaving him open to reader interpretation. I lean toward ghost, though for a while there he did seem more imaginary. His interactions with Asumi felt like those of an older sibling. He does encourage and nurture Asumi, but he’s also playful in a way a big brother would be rather than a father. I never thought about juxtaposes Asumi’s father and Mr. Lion while I was reading it, but thinking about it now, their physical forms (or lack there of) seem to represent their roles in Asumi’s life. Mr. Lion is all about dreams and making them come true, while her father is more about harsh reality. With Mr. Lion, Asumi can dream of going to space, while with her father, she has to be more down to earth with taking care of the house and him. I think that’s why we see him slapping her when he disciplines her. It’s like a call back to the real world, something that the accident has forced her father to be in all the time, while Asumi can still dream.

Mike Pawuk: I think (so far) that Mr. Lion is a ghost representing the innocent hopes and dreams of all of those who perished in the failed space flight. Asumi is a natural successor to their unfinished dreams and have been with her ever since. I at first thought Mr. Lion was imaginary, but when Asumi’s teacher saw Mr. Lion too, his role in the book took a more dramatic turn.

I don’t see Asumi’s father as a counterpoint to Mr. Lion. It’s true he’s a harsh realist, but last true time we’ve seen her father is when he’s given her his blessing to go to space school. Prior to that, as told in the many flashbacks, he’s a still-grieving widow and his anger and sadness are valid.

Eva: Not counting the side stories at the end, Twin Spica has two distinct sections, Asumi’s internal journey and Asumi’s journey to space camp.  I found the space camp section to be peopled with character types rather than real characters, but I suspect that will change in later volumes as the characters develop and begin to take shape.  Did any of you prefer one section of the book over the other?  Why or why not?

Snow: I definitely preferred the “space camp” stories. They were fun and I felt like I was really there with Asumi, living her life while training. The more internal sections kicked me out of the story a little. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate getting to know Asumi or that I didn’t sympathize with her problems. It’s just that those parts were so much slower when compared to the training sections.

Esther: I didn’t like one part more than the other. I thought the two worked very well together and really intertwined in such a way, that one story wouldn’t have been complete without the other. The space camp story would have just been an adventure story that lacked any depth, while her personal story would have been too heavy and too much without the adventure part of the story.

Snow: I’d like to hear people’s thoughts on the art. I was a little worried that the art might be to young for the target audience. What do y’all think?

Katherine Dacey: That’s an interesting question, Snow; even though Twin Spica works well as young adult fiction (and may be received as such here in the US), it was originally serialized in Comic Flapper, a seinen (or men’s) magazine in Japan. For that reason, I’d argue that the artwork isn’t young so much as deliberately naive (especially in the slightly awkward way the characters are drawn), an artistic choice that’s meant to underscore the heroine’s age and inexperience. That said, I could see certain readers passing on Twin Spica because the artwork doesn’t match their idea of what sci-fi comics should look like.

Maybe the real question is whether the cover really sells the story. I like the cover fine, but it doesn’t convey much about Asumi’s quest to become an astronaut — actually, it would be hard to figure out what kind of story it is from the cover art alone. I think the art is appealing enough that younger readers will pick it up anyway; older readers, however, may need a little convincing to give it a try.

Robin: I agree with Kate on all points.  The cover is problematic partially because, in combination with the title, it’s incredibly hard to tell what the manga is about or what to expect.  Twin Spica means nothing until it’s explained, and I admit I might not have even picked up this manga to read personally except that many folks recommended it.

I’d say it emotionally resonates — that the feeling that the story evokes is present in the cover and in the artwork in general — but for US audiences it certainly doesn’t imply that it’s an astronaut tale.  It should appeal to younger readers, who are looking for a less hardcore space adventure, but I think it would be hard to sell it to the Ender’s Game crowd or those teens who feel they are more sophisticated than the magical, fairy-light dream the cover represents.

I hadn’t realized that this series originally ran in a seinen magazine, but that makes the artwork style click into place — as you said, Kate, it’s deliberately naive.  It makes me wonder if actual teens would feel like the artist was in some way talking down to them, acting as if they couldn’t handle a more gritty, realistic portrayal.

Katherine: That’s a great question, Robin. On the one hand, I’m not sure that younger readers will interpret the naivete of the artwork as a deliberate choice. And, in fairness to the reader, they shouldn’t have to know the series’ publication history to appreciate the art; it should work on its own terms. I think it does, but I’ve also read hundreds of series, so I have plenty of other works with which to compare Twin Spica.

On the other hand, the art is very easy to read; Kou Yaginuma’s settings are detailed enough to ground the story in a particular place and time, yet the linework and layouts are clean and uncluttered. I could see Twin Spica as a good choice for readers who are new to manga, who come to the medium without any preconceptions about what it’s supposed to look like. Teens who already have a strong preference for certain type of manga are going to be a tougher sell, as Twin Spica doesn’t look like Naruto or Gakuen Alice or Black Butler.

Esther: I remember when I saw the cover, I wasn’t overly impressed. I, too, wouldn’t have picked this up, if it wasn’t for everyone’s recommendations.  The biggest problem with the cover is that you really have no idea what it’s about and the title doesn’t give you any ideas either (which is fine. I don’t think the title has to spell out the plot at all).

The artwork inside resonated with me. I’m not quite the expert in manga, and while am familiar with many of the different types of Japanese comics, I don’t usually pay attention to it.  While the cover won’t sell, once I manage to convince a reader to try it, I think they’ll really go for this title, artwork and all!

Lori: As a long time shojo and shonen manga reader, I was a little put off my art at first. But as usual, I got to like the art as I read more. I agree that this is a good style for non-manga readers. There are none of usual cues that a non-reader wouldn’t get. As to whether the art would appeal to the target audience, I handed the book to my 13-year-old-sci-fi-leaning-artist daughter and asked her what she thought of the art. She said it was really nice and seemed to really like it. I also asked her if she saw just the cover, if it would interest her enough to pick up and read. She said yes. I know it’s just anecdotal, but there does seem to be a teen audience out there that could be enticed by the art.

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Eva Volin About Eva Volin

Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.

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