During this week’s Manga Movable Feast, everyone’s been talking about the fact that in Japan, Yotsuba&! is published in a magazine intended for adult men. For many reviewers, the fact that they know that the title is intended for an adult audience has led them to ask why Yotsuba&! is being considered as an appealing title for young readers. Reactions range from head scratching to outright shock that anyone considers this title good for kids.
The fact that Yotsuba&! was originally published in Dengeki Daioh, a magazine intended for adult, fanboy men, is the troublesome wrinkle. I wonder whether the discussion of appeal is skewed by how everyone was first introduced to Yotsuba&! and what they know of Dengeki Daioh, which, as Sean Gaffney of A Case for Suitable Treament addresses, publishes content that is far more unnerving to US readers. It’s hard to forget when you’ve already been exposed to them that a number of Dengeki Daioh’s manga are not as innocent as Yotsuba&! is.
When librarians are selecting manga to purchase, what matters most is who the title appeals to in our library, who the reviews recommend it for, and who the publishers indicate the audience is (we can and do question publisher ratings, but we do use them as a guide.) Yotsuba&! has been published by two different publishers here in the US, ADV Manga and then Yen Press, and both editions have been rated All Ages. When the series came out in 2005, Publisher’s Weekly gave the first volume a strongly positive review and School Library Journal recommended it for grades 5 and up. When the fourth volume was published in 2007, Publisher’s Weekly rejoiced at its long-delayed release and concluded the review commenting, “The appeal of this series ranges across genders and age groups, and it remains highly recommended for all libraries.” One elementary school librarian reported that Yotsuba&! was among the series she couldn’t keep on the shelf. Yotsuba&! was included in the 2007 YALSA Popular Paperbacks list (What’s so funny?) and the 2008 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. From all of these sources, librarians were being told that first, this was a series to purchase, and second, it was appealing to younger readers on up through teens.
I did a quick check about where libraries who own Yotsuba&! shelve their copies. In my network, of the thirty two libraries that own the series, twenty have it in the Children’s collection, eleven have it in the teen collection, and two have it in the adult collection. In looking through Worldcat to see what a selection of other libraries do, twelve had the series in Children’s collections, ten in teen collections, and one in adult. In terms of who’s reading the series, the librarians I polled reported back that they mostly seen kids and tweens reading the series, with teens and adults also occasionally picking it up, and that it was particularly popular with 4th-6th grade boys. One librarian, Kat Kan, reports, “I have Yotsuba&! in my school library which serves preK-8th grade. It’s a very popular series for both boys and girls, and they usually start reading it in 5th grade. Last year it circulated even more than Bone.” Whatever adult readers may feel, kids and teens are clearly picking Yotsuba&! to read, and loving it.
We librarians notice reviews and age ratings long before we note a manga’s original intended audience. In fact, most librarians have no idea of any manga’s original intended audience — it’s not something we’ll look up, and it’s not something most librarians need to know in making collection development decisions. So that begs the question: how much does the intended audience matter? How much does a series define appeal because of who reads it rather than who is supposed to read it?
A few examples to consider: Jeff Smith’s Bone series was originally written without any specific audience in mind (as he’s said). When Scholastic picked up the series, added color, and re-released it, they were very purposefully targeting the children’s graphic novel market. The reason they knew it would work, however, is that Bone had already been embraced by young readers, whatever Smith’s original intention. Is Bone somehow not a kids comic because it wasn’t written for them?
To draw from the comic strip world, Calvin and Hobbes is a beloved comic strip featuring the adventures of six-year-old Calvin and his stuffed tiger. Comic strips, it might be said, are always targeted to an adult audience because that’s who buys newspapers, but almost every person I know remembers the special joy of pulling the comic strip section out of the local paper as a kid. Watterson’s strip is all about the precociousness of Calvin and his grand imagination but it is expressed in language and references that arguably mean the most to adult readers. Where do libraries have it? In their children’s and sometimes teen collections. Who reads it? Everyone, but kids most voraciously. Does the adult perspective and level of reading each strip make the series unappealing or inappropriate for kids? No.
I agree that with series like Strawberry Marshmallow, where you can sense from the text itself that the cast of young girls are being objectified a bit too much, one has to be careful about who it’s appealing to and where to shelve it. However, as everyone seems to agree that Yotsuba&! does not contain the potentially disturbing focus that other Dengeki Daioh series include, I’m unconvinced that its appeal to young readers doesn’t trump adult opinions about who should read the series. The bulk of readers out there in the wide world, from librarians to the kids picking Yotsuba&! up on the shelf, have no idea of it’s origin, and it seems to affect their enjoyment not one whit. Who are we to argue that it isn’t a kids series when kids themselves are clamoring for the next volume?