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Manga Movable Feast: Reviewing Kids Manga Roundtable

As we are hosting the Manga Movable Feast this month taking a look at kids manga, we all thought this was a great time to share the joys and difficulties of reviewing manga for kids.  A lot of questions come up when reviewing for kids, especially as all of us are a significant number of years away from being kids ourselves.  Manga adds more complications to the mix as so few have been published in the US and the original intended audience in Japan can call into question just who titles are best suited for outside of Japan.

In the spirit of tackling the process of reviewing as well as providing reviews themselves, let’s get started.

We reviewers are generally fans of Japanese manga and know well its appeal to teens and adults, but manga aimed at younger readers has been few and far between.  What makes a manga great for kids?  Are there any special considerations you take into account when considering manga versus comics from the US?

Esther: My first response, which is really a question, is how do we define kids?  We call our blog Good Comics for Kids, but we do review comics that are aimed at teens.  (And I know we sort of just need a catchy name and calling it Good Comics for Kids & Teens wasn’t as catchy…. I’m just making a point.)  From a librarian’s POV, I view kids as anyone below the age of 12 or 13.  In my experience, (both personal and profession) by 7th grade or so, the kids really start to mature and start turning all teenish!  Some do show the signs before they hit this age, but for the most part, those angsty teen years, really hit around the 7th grade. It always hits me when my little 6th graders come back from summer vacation and suddenly they’re not so little and cute anymore!  So when I hear what’s a good manga for kids, I think about kids before 7th grade.

First and foremost, what makes a manga great for kids is that it’s a good solid story that will appeal to that age group. It shouldn’t talk down to its audience.  Kids don’t always get the credit they deserve.  2nd, it should have lively artwork.  It should be something that really appeals to kids.

When considering manga vs. western comics for kids, I don’t differentiate how I select titles. I want to know that it’s a good story. That it will appeal to most of my students. I want to know that the content is not too mature for their age group – whether it be too sexy or too violent or just a story that talks over their head (with themes and ideas that is a bit beyond them).  The Japanese do think differently about sex and violence than many Americans, so it can get tricky. But for the most part, the titles aimed at the younger age demographic are quite kid friendly.

Brigid: When I was a kid, there were two kinds of books—books I wanted to read and books the grownups wanted me to read. I liked books about girls my own age with a world that I could step into (for that reason, I really liked series books, because I could keep coming back) and strong story hooks. The Scholastic Book Club flyer that came to my school once a month was packed with these.

The grownups wanted me to read books that had literary qualities that were important to them (the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Chronicles of Narnia). Reading those books was like eating peas, a necessary evil but not particularly enjoyable. Now that I’m an adult, I like peas and literary fiction, but my childhood distaste for Homer and Lewis remains, along with anything that has a whiff of official approval.

So when I’m reviewing a book, I channel my inner kid. That means I’m not too snobby about goofy characters or adaptations of TV and movie properties; I loved those things when I was a kid, and they may be a way into reading for some children. The basic ingredients are still the same—characters I can love or hate, a world I want to visit, and a plot I care about. My nieces and nephew, aged 5 to 10, are a great filter for this; often I’ll just love a book and they won’t give it a second look—or vice versa. Bringing this back to manga, my children loved Kodocha, Fruits Basket, and Tokyo MewMew, all of which appalled me at first, and none of which will ever make anyone’s list of great books. But it’s not about what I think, it’s about finding books that have those qualities—the same ones I sought out all those years ago—and making them available to kids. And not worrying too much about it—I think reviews of children’s books should take the adults, as gatekeepers, into consideration, and perhaps reassure them a bit. It has been over five years since my daughters went through their manga stage and now, as teenagers, they read literary fiction for enjoyment, so manga didn’t ruin their tastes, it honed them.

Esther: You mean, I’m not a kid?  🙂

Seriously, Brigid, you bring up such an excellent point about reviewing. I was just reviewing a title that I could not connect to, but knew it was very popular with my students. So it forced me to look at it with another eye… and when I did, I was able to see it’s appeal.

Robin: Characters are very important to me as well, but I agree with you, Brigid, that one of the biggest parts is presenting a world that I want to dive into.  As a kid, I loved stories that took me away from my world and sparked my imagination (hence why I read a whole lot of science fiction and fantasy, starting with myths and fairy tales.)  I see the same hooks work their magic on young readers today: present a world that intriguing, and makes you want to explore, and kids will let loose their imagination.  Even if the title is nonfiction, it still needs to vividly present a place the reader wants to go, whether it’s cosmonaut training with Laika or learning to draw cartoons with an elf.

I wanted to chime in to say that I too try to find my inner kid.  I think one of the hardest aspects of reviewing titles for an age group you’re not part of (which I do frequently as I review teen and kids titles) is turning off the accumulation of adult attitudes, criticisms, and experience.  You have to remember that yes, a plot might seem tired and overdone to you, but what about a kid who’s never read that plot before?  As an adult, you have years and years of story familiarity, but for a kid who’s never read the girl-dresses-up-as-a-boy-to-be-a-knight plot, it’s fantastically awesome as it’s the first time such an idea entered  their head.

So in that sense, I do try very hard to keep the intended audience in mind in terms of reading experience as well as age appropriateness. The best comics, of course, can work on many levels and appeal to both parents and kids, as the best stories do.  Still, not every story can reinvigorate a genre, so I have to remember not to reject a title because it feels old hat to me.

Lori: When I’m reviewing a title for kids, I don’t take country of origin into consideration. I’m looking at the story and characters and if either/both would appeal to kids. Part of my intent when I started reviewing comics and manga was to share a parent’s perspective with other parents. When I read a kid’s title, I’m often asking myself if I would give it to my daughters and would they enjoy reading it.  What makes a title good for kids to me is if it appeals to them, entertains them, and makes them want to keep reading. In regards to content, I try to point out anything that a parent might find objectionable, but I don’t emphasis it. I treat it as a heads up so they know it’s there and can make their own decision on its appropriateness for their own children. In the end though, I think it’s the kids, who I define as 12 and under, that decide if a book is good. Whether I like it personally isn’t as important as if my daughter likes it.

Robin: As Esther comments, Japanese creators and publishers have a different sensibility when it comes to what elements (nudity, sensuality, alcohol, innuendo) are ok for different age ranges.  How do you deal with those discrepancies in reviewing manga for kids?

Are there any titles that were presented as for young readers that didn’t quite fit for content reasons?  What should readers and reviewers look out for in manga that deserves mentioning in a review?

Kate: When I’m reviewing manga that’s rated All Ages, I ask myself the following questions:

Is the script something a young reader could tackle on her own, or would she need parental assistance?
I’ve read some books that were translated very nicely, but the resulting script seemed too sophisticated for the actual story and artwork.

How is violence handled in the course of the story?
If the violence is of a slapstick nature, or is bloodless but with obvious repercussions, I’m OK with all all-ages rating; if there’s an element of sadism, or the imagery is gory, I’m less inclined to recommend it for kids under twelve.

Is there nudity? If so, in what context?
It’s pretty rare to find an All-Ages title with any nudity; the only example that comes to mind is Kon Kon Ko-Kon, a Broccoli Books title that has a bath scene in which the true gender of a character is revealed. (Nothing is shown directly, though it’s obvious what’s happening.) I wouldn’t necessarily label Kon Kon Ko-Kon a Teen book just because of that scene — especially because the underlying intent of the scene is humorous, not pornographic — but I would certainly mention it in my review so that a parent or librarian was aware of it. More common are books in which there’s a bit of mild fanservice (e.g. a villainess in a skimpy costume, as in The Legend of Zelda or Dinosaur King) or kids dressing in a manner that adults might find age-inappropriate. Again, I think most young readers can handle these kind of images, though I make it my policy to discuss and contextualize what I find so adults can decide whether it’s appropriate for the kids they know.

Could a grade school student follow the visual layout without too much difficulty?
Some kids’ manga is clearly designed for young readers (e.g. big panels, simplified character designs), while other titles are visually interchangeable with Teen and Teen+ series. For kids in the six-to-eight category, I’d be more likely to recommend a title like The Big Adventures of Majoko, Happy Happy Clover, or Ninja Baseball Kyuma!, as the artwork is very easy to parse, even for first-time manga readers. With slightly older kids, I lean more towards titles like BakeGyamon: Backwards Game, where the content is appropriate for younger readers, but the visual presentation is much closer to series in VIZ’s Shonen Jump line. Kids want to feel like they’re reading up.

Robin: Kate, this is a most excellent list of questions.  I’ve never formalized these questions in my head, but I may well just crib your list now!

One other question I’ve had directly from parents is how cruel or vicious scenes are handled.  Parents who express no worries at all about the occasional bit of language or nudity do worry about the behavior their kids might see in terms of bullying and models of mean behavior.  I think about this concern after I’ve considered the big two of nudity/sensuality and violence, but I do try to remember to consider it.

Esther: Kate, I have to agree with Robin, this is an excellent list of questions! I especially like your question about the visual layout. I started to read Di Gi Charat (which is rated E) and that question immediately popped into my head while reading the title.

Eva: Like you, Robin, I answer a lot of the same questions Kate asks, but I’ve never formalized them.  Let’s face it, the majority of the people buying books for kids are adults, and many of those adults won’t know much about comics in general, much less the conventions of manga or Japan’s social mores.  So I try to mention any of the hot button topics you and Kate bring up, including tone and vocabulary choice, that may be concerning to adults when writing my review.  The presence of hot button topics won’t necessarily change how I feel about a book (except for possibly saying it would be better in the teen or adult sections), but I do think it’s fair to spotlight the issues in the review so that the book buyer knows they’re present.

Robin: One thing I know reviewers struggle with, especially reviewers who are not used to reviewing work for young audiences, is how to turn off one’s adult sensibility.  There are some harsh reviews out there that rip apart kids manga titles and seem to miss the point that a manga intended for eight-year-olds is not going to knock an adult’s socks off.  How do you differentiate between what is appropriate for a kids title and what is truly not very good?

Esther: When you say appropriate, Robin, I imagine you mean what will appeal to that age group, not necessarily too much violence, sex etc.  When reviewing, I accomplish that (or try to accomplish that) is by (like Brigid said) channeling my inner kid. In addition, I talk to kids all the time. Whether it’s my students, nieces & nephews, or my neighbors kids. I try to keep an eye & ear out for what they’re doing and reading.  This way, I can honestly look at a manga and say, hey this will appeal to a kid (from this age group) or not.  I’ll also ask the kids what they think and try to compare it to my own reactions. I can’t do this with every title, but at least I have a gauge of what their reactions are to certain titles.

Lori: Turning off the adult side of me and channeling my inner child isn’t easy for me sometimes, so I again use my children as a gauge. Since I monitor what they watch and read, I have a feel for what appeals to them and watch out for those things when I’m reviewing a title that’s meant to be for kids. Like Esther, I will ask my kids what they think of a title, especially if I’m not sure. It’s a little easier when you have the target audience living in the next room.

Kate: You raise a great point, Robin: adult criteria such as cleverness or originality aren’t very helpful in assessing a kids’ book, since children tend to value directness and similarity much more than adults. Whenever I’ve seen manga reviewers attack a book for young readers, it’s usually because it flunks the sophistication test.

At the same time, however, I do think a reviewer has an obligation to evaluate the skill with which a story is being told. I’ve read children’s comics that I thought were terrible — not because the stories were simple or cliche, but because the artwork was amateurish, or the book seemed more like marketing for a video game or TV show than a genuine story. The first wave of Ben 10 manga are an instructive example: the artwork consisted entirely of fuzzy screen captures, while the script was a mish-mash of dialogue from the show and clumsy voiceovers explaining the action (even though it was very obvious from the artwork what was happening). I don’t doubt that there were kids who loved these books — and I said as much in my review — but there wasn’t much to praise; the whole enterprise seemed like a hasty attempt to capitalize on the TV show’s popularity. Not all tie-in comics are bad, of course; BOOM! Studios has adapted franchises like The Muppet Show and Toy Story into fun, readable comics that work well for fans and newcomers alike. The key difference is craft: the BOOM! comics have great scripts and great artwork, which the Ben 10 manga did not. (Again, I’m speaking about the first wave of Ben 10 comics; I know Del Rey hired Peter David and Dan Hipp to do a manga with original artwork and scripts, but I haven’t read those yet.)

Craft shouldn’t be the only or most important criterion for evaluating a kids’ manga, but I do think it needs to be in the mix. I’d love to see reviewers find the middle ground between eviscerating a book because the concept is familiar and praising it simply because some kid, somewhere might like it.

Snow: I think Lori has boiled it down to the particulars, at least for me: “I’m looking at the story and characters and if either/both would appeal to kids.” I go with my gut in many cases, which is what I think a lot of librarians, parents, teachers, booksellers, etc. do when they are recommending books for kids. What aspects of this work do we think will make it appealing to kids? Not the “message,” not the deeper meaning, but what elements of the comic make it a “kids” comic.

When I’m reading and reviewing a comic for kids, I try to think about whether or not I would have read it as a kid. Does the story seem like it’s talking down to the reader? Is the art cheesy (and not in a good way)? Are the characters overly “cool” or do they seem too trendy? Is the plot just trying to cash in on a popular phenomenon or do the creators have something new and interesting to say? Do I enjoy the work? That last bit can be tricky. There are children’s comics that I, personally, speaking both as a grown woman and through my inner child, didn’t like. But very often there is a voice in my head that says, “yes, but a different child would like this.” I try to make sure I listen to that voice if it is there, because it is telling me something important.

Eva: This question comes up every few years when people start talking about the Newbery Award: why do books no kid will read keep winning big awards?  Often there is a huge gap between literary quality and popularity, but it’s important to review both types of book.  As Snow and Brigid point out, there are kids who love literary fiction.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be reviewing the fun stuff.  And we shouldn’t be judging fun based on what a bunch of middle aged fogeys think, but by what a ten-year-old thinks is funny.  And a ten-year-old thinks farts are little poots of gold.

Robin: A lot of the discussion and reviews from this week’s Manga Movable Feast address the fact that while Yotsuba&! is not marketed or written as a kids comic, it’s being treated as a kids comic here in the US. Many reviewers and commentators find this baffling as the adult perspective and nostalgia for childhood keep Yotsuba&! firmly adult appeal.  A number of reviewers have said they can’t see why Yotsuba&! would appeal to kids.

As folks who work directly with young readers, do you find Yotsuba&! difficult to place?  Where do you have Yotsuba&! in your collections? How much does the original intended audience (i.e. adult men) matter to you (or your readers)?  Do your young readers pick up and enjoy Yotsuba&!?

Esther: In honor of Manga Moveable Feast, I took Yotsuba&! out of the library, because it’s been a long time since I read it… and I have to disagree with that assessment. I do see why it’s from an adult POV, but actually it’s a perfect tween title. Here’s my thought as to why…. ever watch a tween with a younger sibling/cousin/niece or nephew?  I find it hilarious how they talk about the younger kids. As if they’re so far from it, when this behavior was them just a few short years ago. Even my 9-year-old niece. When I talk to her, she like a blow-by-blow of my 1-year-old son’s antics. What is he up to? Does he walk? Does he talk? She likes to hear the stories and then tells them to her mother. I call her a mini mommy.

So, a 9-year-old or 12-year-old will enjoy reading the antics of Yotsuba who’s about 5 or 6 or so. That nostalgia will resonate with them as they recall their antics “way back when.”

Yotsuba&! is not the most popular title in my manga collection, but this year it finally was graduated to popular enough to steal!  That’s high praise for any book in the library.

Eva: Everything that Esther just said.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are a lot of characters in the book besides Yotsuba.  Watching the three sisters interact with each other, it’s easy to identify any of them.  Moms can identify with the girls’ mother.  Anyone can identify with having to deal with a crazy friend.  This isn’t a one-dimentional book.

By saying that older kids can’t identify with a book about a younger kid, or that kids won’t “read down” is nonsense.  For the most part, it’s not kindergarteners who are reading Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books.  Or Judy Blume’s Fudge books.  Kids “read down” all the time.  What matters to them is that they’re engaged by the story.  What they don’t like are books that talk down to them.  Just because kids are short doesn’t mean they’re dumb.

Robin Brenner About Robin Brenner

Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.

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