GREAT MANGA FOR PRETEENS (OR THE CLOSEST THING THERE IS)
When I discovered manga and anime in the early 1990s, it had an edgy feeling: a cult phenomenon mostly popular among college students who were tired of "kiddie cartoons." Fifteen years later, after a wave of popular children's series such as Pokémon, Sailor Moon and Yu-Gi-Oh (paralleled by increasingly adult animation on American TV, of the Adult Swim variety) the stereotype has reversed itself. Now, the average age of readers has dropped, and manga has found its way into school libraries and the Scholastic book club. Like American comics readers, grownup manga readers must deal with periodic feature stories announcing the news that Hey, guys, manga isn't just for kids anymore!
But if you look at manga age ratings (which only began to be printed on covers in the last seven years or so), you'll notice something: there are hardly any translated manga with an "all ages" rating. The vast majority of translated titles in the U.S. bear a "13+" or "16+" age rating (but rarely the dreaded, sales-killing "18+"). Are American publishers neglecting the young children's manga market? Not really. The majority of shojo and shonen manga -- from Sailor Moon to Shonen Jump -- are written for a core demographic of junior high students, but Japanese parents rarely freak out if they find their way into elementary school hands. So why are utterly inoffensive titles like Yume Kira Dream Shoppe and Kitchen Princess rated "13+" in the U.S.? The truth is that American manga publishers are playing it safe. Although manga is hardly a free-for-all of sex and violence -- each magazine has its own "acceptable content" restrictions, and the Japanese PTA sometimes gets up in arms over manga they consider offensive -- its content restrictions are different from American TV shows and movies, and there is always the slim chance of offending someone. As manga have become more popular and its visibility has risen, most manga publishers have become more conservative in their ratings systems. The breasts once casually bared in 16+ (or unrated) boy's manga like Ranma 1/2 are now usually shrinkwrapped or censored. Viz's children-stranded-in-a-dangerous-world sci-fi horror manga The Drifting Classroom, which I edit, was originally printed in a magazine for junior high students; it now bears an 18+ label.
In short, most manga publishers' rating systems err on the side of caution, and there are many titles rated 13+ which may be suitable for late elementary school readers. This is obviously a subjective issue between children and their parents or guardians; I was ten years old in 1984, and my teacher at the time encouraged me to read 1984 (not to mention Lord of the Flies ), but everyone's standards vary. Parents and teachers must keep an eye on age ratings, and should, if they have any doubts, pre-screen the manga themselves. In this article I'll try to list good manga which I feel are suitable for an all-ages audience.
Unfortunately, the tamest children's manga are rarely the best. Corocoro Comic, Japan's bestselling manga magazine for elementary school students, produced the classic children's manga Doraemon; but almost all you can find in translation are licensed spin-offs of anime and video games (such as Beyblade, Zoids, Megaman and Pokémon ). Similar titles include the strictly middle-of-the-road Dragon Drive, Kilala Princess, Monsters Inc., Kingdom Hearts and Beet the Vandel Buster. Kingdom Hearts has lovely artwork, but on the whole, such titles have little to offer to more advanced children or older readers. The Project X and Edu-Manga lines are also fairly dull; if you want good educational comics, translated manga hasn't produced anything on the level of Larry Gonick. ( Warren Buffett: An Illustrated Biography of the World's Most Successful Investor is pretty amusing, though, if you're somehow teaching a preteen economics class.)
I've already addressed Manga for Newbies in another article, but now I'll try to talk specifically about manga for younger readers, Most of the best manga are original stories, not adaptations, and so far educational manga has not lived up to is promise. The following titles don't have nudity, sexual situations or graphic violence (in most cases), and they represent the best manga aimed at their age group. Where possible, I've tried to point out potential issues, and please research them further before giving them to a child or a class, but all are good titles in their own way.
Let's start with what many people think of when they think "children's comics" -- comedies. Viz is probably right to give Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump a 13+ rating -- this 1980 series about a mad scientist and his little-girl android assistant has lots of jokes about poo (albeit cute ones) and the bachelor doctor's failed attempts to peep on women. But if you focus on the tamer chapters, this is a charming, warm series for younger readers, with beautiful children's-book artwork and fun, self-referential gags, often revolving around time travel, aliens, dinosaurs and other science fiction standbys. The cat comedy manga What's Michael? (one of the few translated examples of the big genre of pet manga) provides fascinating comparisons to American pet comics. Gon, a wordless manga about a little dinosaur who plays with the other little animals and beats up on big predators, is also fun, although the slapstick violence gets a little brutal.
Family four-panel manga, the Japanese equivalent of newspaper strips, are hard to find and generally lose something in translation. (Classic titles like The Wonderful World of Sazae-san are out-of-print, old-fashioned and mostly of historical interest.) Kiyohiko Azuma's Azumanga Daioh , a four-panel manga about girls in high school, is definitely aimed at 13+ with its hints of sexual humor and prurient interest, but his non-four-panel Yotsuba&! , about a cute green-haired girl around kindergarten age who has wacky adventures in her neighborhood, is delightful for all ages [CitC Editor's Note: this title has been offered in Scholastic Book Club order forms] . Marimo Ragawa's Baby & Me , about a boy taking care of his younger brother since his mom died (there's also a huge surrounding cast of characters), has less eye-catching art and is more hit-and-miss, but it's an enjoyable ensemble comedy. Also rated 13+, a few chapters involve potentially objectionable content, such as crooks with guns, or darkly melodramatic stories of the supporting cast, or a flashback showing the children's parents talking in bed under the covers.
For those on the border of 13, the sweet/snarky/sentimental comedies of Koge-Donbo ( Yoki Koto Kiku, Kamichama Karin, Pita-ten ) are decent reading, although her super-cute art style is probably a little too deformed for manga newbies. If you can find a copy of the 1992 Super Mario Adventures, it's a cute color book produced by Japanese artists for the American market.
SHONEN (BOYS') ACTION MANGA
Boy's action comics, or shonen manga, are some of the bestselling titles in both the U.S. and Japan. Shonen manga, in which the biggest genre is "battle manga," depends on cliffhanger plots, fight scenes and a "friends are important" or "you can do it if you work hard" message. One Piece, Naruto, Shaman King, Rurouni Kenshin , Kekkaishi and Dragon Ball Z are all high-quality shonen titles with interesting art and clever takes on the formula. Zatch Bell is good as well, although in the interests of full disclosure, I am currently editing that manga.
The most common problems with boy's manga are violence. All the titles I've listed are rated 13+ (except for Dragon Ball Z, which is tenuously rated all-ages) and aren't as violent as manga gets, but they do include a level of gore which would be unacceptable by American children's TV standards and which goes way beyond titles like Kingdom Hearts and Megaman . Hands are severed, blood sprays, characters are run through by knives and swords. On the other hand, despite all the blood, Zatch Bell and One Piece are conspicious in that no one actually dies onscreen; the mamodo in Zatch Bell just get knocked out and "transported back to the mamodo world" (although there is an implied threat of death in some scenes) and the pirates in One Piece , both good guys and bad guys, have the tenacity of cockroaches. Dragon Ball Z takes another approach in that characters die but frequently come back from the dead and/or show up as ghosts, with halos but otherwise not the worse for wear. Thus, the mood never gets too dark. On the other hand, manga like Naruto and Rurouni Kenshin must perform a different kind of delicate balance, since they must maintain the pretense of realism and grittiness -- death means death if you're a ninja or a samurai -- while also conforming to the happy endings required by the genre.
Some shonen manga also flirts with sexual humor, generally making ill use of its female characters. I've kept most of the real offenders off the list, but Dragon Ball, the prequel to Dragon Ball Z, has a lot of this in the early volumes (particularly the first two), including some nudity and "dirty old man" jokes. Apart from that, however, it's an excellent series, mixing martial arts action with some traces of the wacky humor which made Toriyama's Dr. Slump so good. The Viz editions are censored to different levels in different printings, so check them out first. All these manga are read by preteens around the world, and from a parent or teacher's perspective, it's ultimately a case-by-case judgment call.
CLAMP's Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (13+) and Angelic Layer (all ages) although the former is more of a fantasy manga, are shonen fighting manga with a twist, created by the female artist group CLAMP. They have a lighter, less violent aesthetic. Akira Toriyama's Sand Land is also a good, relatively bloodless short action-adventure manga, the most innocuous of all his works.
SHOJO (GIRLS') ROMANCE MANGA
Before they are romances, however, most of the best preteen shojo are fantasies -- tales of princesses, witches, psychic and magic powers, etc. This is both because manga for younger readers have more fantasy elements, and because stories with a realistic setting are more likely to flirt with relationships, sex and other edgy material. The best fantasy shojo include titles such as Naoko Takeuchi's pseudo-action fantasy Sailor Moon (which starts weak and drags on too long, but is a decent title for most of its run) and Moyoco Anno's gorgeously drawn Sugar Sugar Rune (which has a few very mild suggestive moments) . CLAMP, the creators of Cardcaptor Sakura, Magic Knight Rayearth and Wish are champions at combining beautiful artwork, fantastic elements and human relationships (although these relationships are sometimes a little questionable -- the student-teacher crush in Cardcaptor Sakura or, depending on your perspective, the androgynous angels in Wish ). Majiko's St. Lunatic High School , about a girl who goes to a school full of spooks and monsters, is free of any such innuendo; it's just a cute shojo comedy with distinctive artwork. (I'd also love to recommend Shizuru Seino's ghosts-and-spirits comedy Heaven!!, but it's too sweary and sleazy for preteens.) Nami Akimoto's Miracle Girls and Wataru Yoshizumi's Ultra Maniac have generic art but are decent takes on the "girls with magic powers and the trouble and romances they get into" genre.
The best non-fantasy shojo, on the other hand, skews towards older teenagers (like Nana and the works of Fumi Yoshinaga), and sometimes involves serious themes like abuse (as in Aishiteruze Baby, Kare Kano and Fruits Basket ). Mihona Fujii's Gals! has the perky look of a manga for younger readers but deals with troublesome issues like violence, the streets and schoolgirl prostitution (a Japanese social problem du jour ) in a girl-power after-school special kid of way; for what it is, it's surprisingly enjoyable. The out-of-print Kodocha, about child actors, also deals with self-esteem and other issues. A few manga, like Love Com, manage to write convincingly about relationships without getting sexual, but be careful to check every volume as the series is still being printed in Japan and ongoing titles have a way of getting more explicit. If you want the absolute mildest shojo available, there's always Tomoko Taniguchi's out-of-print romances (of which the best are Call Me Princess and Just a Girl , unless you prefer laughing at the '80s hair metal references in Let's Stay Together Forever ), but her works suffer from bland art and lack of memorable melodrama. Lastly, there is a whole line of Harlequin Romance Manga for younger teenage readers (the "Harlequin Pink" books, not the adult "Harlequin Violet" ones), but it's difficult to recommend them.
Any would-be shojo manga artist could do worse than Shojo Beat's Manga Artist Academy, an excellent book featuring drawing and writing advice from many of the best artists in the business.
A DIGRESSION: BOYS' ROMANCE MANGA
Notably absent from this list are boys' ( shonen ) romantic manga, for the reason that it is generally too sexual for preteens. The only boys' romance manga artist I'd really consider showing to a 12-year-old is Rumiko Takahashi, one of the first female artists to find success in boy's manga. She's great, but virtually all her series have some nudity, from the excellent romantic comedies Maison Ikkoku and Ranma 1/2 to the fantasy action series Inuyasha, which is not her best work. Her mildest series is the charming One Pound Gospel, although even that has some cartoony nudity. Rumiko Takahashi's works, then, will probably not be on most parents' lists of preferred preteen reading, but her work deserves consideration for teenagers. Takahashi's work is a world apart from the more salacious content of other boys' artists such as Masakazu Katsura ( Video Girl Ai, I"s ) and Ken Akamatsu ( Negima!, Love Hina ), and even boys' artists who pander without outright nudity, such as Mizuki Kawashita ( Strawberry 100% ).
FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION
The division between boys' and girls' comics runs deep in Japan (although there is a certain crossover in readership), but some titles wear the formulas on their sleeves less than others. In particular, there's a wide variety of fantasy and sci-fi adventure manga for young readers.
Whether or not you've seen the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga is a classic. A postapocalyptic science fiction epic with a dense plot and individualistic, detailed artwork which stands alone among manga, it does contain fairly graphic violence and a grimmer mood than the anime version. Still, it's a must-read. A much lighter manga based on a Studio Ghibli film is the fairytale-esque Baron: The Cat Returns. If you like Nausicaä, you might also consider tracking down Gaku Miyao's Kazan, an out-of-print fantasy adventure with more conventional artwork and a more conventionally heroic mood.
There's countless good manga set in faraway fantasy worlds. Jing: King of Bandits has a sort of slapstick fairytale style, distantly related to other shonen adventures like Rave Master and the aforementioned One Piece, but with less violence. (Though Jing does cheerfully flip off the camera once or twice—what a rascal!) On the other hand, Brave Story, a competent 13+ shonen adaptation of the Japanese fantasy novel by Miyuki Miyabe, has a more gritty mood and dark real-world themes, very vaguely similar to The Neverending Story. There are many good shojo fantasy manga for younger readers, generally eschewing violence in favor of a light, melancholy mood: Beyond the Beyond, From Far Away (an especially good book) , The First King Adventure (sadly canceled in midstream) and The Good Witch of the West are all decent titles. For early teens, try the horror-fantasy manga Her Majesty's Dog , the slightly suggestive manga of Sakuro Kinoshita ( Tactics ), or Kiyoko Shitou's Key to the Kingdom.
Science fiction (in any meaningfully scientific sense of the word) is rarer in manga. Kozue Amano's Aqua and Aria, about lady gondoliers in a reconstructed Venice on the terraformed planet Mars, are charming exercises in atmosphere; there's a bit of the peaceful, whimsical mood and plucky work ethic displayed in Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service. Some readers may object to the vague suggestion of crushes between the members of the all-girl cast, though. Chikyu Misaki, by the always excellent Yuji Iwahara, is one of the best children's manga available in English, the story of girls who encounter a plesiosaur-like lake monster and must protect it from crooks and scientists. It plays out almost like Lilo & Stitch or The Iron Giant —but again, there is a possibly-lesbian character, and scenes of a seductive adult woman in a bath towel, and a little boy running around naked, Maurice Sendak style.
Giant robots are a genre generally better suited to anime than manga, but among the manga spinoffs of robot franchises, the best translated examples include Gundam the Origin (a hard sci-fi robot drama, sadly never completed in English) and The Big O (a cartoony robot series which has a somewhat shaky beginning and a few moments of sexually suggestive imagery later on).
A DIGRESSION: SPORTS, HOBBY AND OCCUPATIONAL MANGA
Comics and sports seem pretty far away to Americans, but in Japan, it's an established genre. Sadly, only a few titles have been translated. Whistle! (a soccer manga) and Prince of Tennis (a tennis manga) are the only all-ages sports titles which have been translated, but they're only average. If your definition of sports includes "hobbies," check out Hikaru no Go. Featuring excellent, realistic artwork by the artist of the morbid Death Note, it's probably the best all-ages manga of the past 10 years, full of conflict and drama and realistic human behavior, all centered around the nonviolent boardgame Go.
Beyond that, most of the best sports manga have some potentially objectionable content. Crimson Hero, a shojo manga about a girl's volleyball team (and lots of hot guys), is decent but has some sexual innuendo and mild language. Yuriko Nishiyama's Harlem Beat, a great basketball manga, also has profanity and a bit of violence and sexuality later on, which probably confines it to teens; the same goes for Takehiko Inoue's Slam Dunk, another excellent basketball title coming from Viz in 2008. Yuriko Nishiyama also worked on Dragon Voice, another 13+ manga about a Backstreet Boys-esque teenage boys' singing group -- it's a fun title which skews a little younger than Harlem Beat. The same goes for Firefighter: Daigo of Fire Company M, which has a few "damns" and over-the-top mayhem but which, being about firefighters, manages to create drama without any fight scenes between human beings; it's suitable for preteens. Lastly, I'd like to recommend Eyeshield 21, a truly excellent football manga with lots of comedy, but since it's full of mild swearing, comedic stereotypes and people firing off guns for comic effect, it probably deserves its 16+ rating. Or at least, it's probably best for teens.
The 1960s and 1970s are considered the Golden Age of manga, and in many ways, it was a time when the medium was not so formulaic and marketing-driven as it is now. (Check out John Gallagher's online translation of Takeo Udagawa's retro-manga celebration Manga Zombie for more information.) The best of this classic manga makes for a fascinating read; the problem in presenting it to preteens (or most manga fans, for that matter) is that the style is so different from what most people associate with manga.
Osamu Tezuka, considered the father of modern manga, has been translated by Viz, Vertical and Dark Horse. Although his art style is uniformly cartoony, some of his works involve fairly graphic, turgid sex and violence; his best stories for young readers are Astro Boy (sadly not his best artwork), Black Jack (which has some scenes of gunfire, medical gore and death) and Phoenix and Buddha (which, however, both contain nudity and should be pre-screened). Dororo, a samurai-vs-monsters manga recently announced by Vertical, looks promising. Tezuka's Princess Knight , an early shojo manga, was excerpted in Viz's Shojo Beat magazine vol. 3 #7. Shotaro Ishonomori's Cyborg 009, similar to Astro Boy in some ways, has its ups and downs (such as the stereotypical artwork depicting minorities, even in the service of an anti-racism message) but is a solid title. There are also many classic series by female artists. Keiko Takemiya's Andromeda Stories and To Terra are classic, PG-rated science fiction with old-fashioned artwork. Swan , a ballet manga, is a charming example of 1970s shojo manga in the most flowery, baroque style imaginable.
The sad truth is that most classic manga have not been translated ( Candy Candy , the romantic tale of a Georgia tomboy, anyone?) or are available only in rare bilingual editions (such as Gegege no Kitaro, Doraemon and most of Princess Knight ). However, in addition to being an amazing resource on manga in general, Frederik Schodt's book 1983 Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics contains segments from four great old-school manga: The Rose of Versailles ; a WWII story from Leiji Matsumoto, artist of Galaxy Express 999 ; Barefoot Gen; and a segment of Phoenix (later released by Viz). It's just another reason to pick up this incredible book (which does, however, contain a chapter on adult manga, with accompanying images of sex and graphic violence).
HISTORICAL THEMES & MORE
Looking for something more experimental, more advanced, but not too edgy? Consider historical manga. There are two translated manga on the Hiroshima bombing: the melodramatic 1970s manga Barefoot Gen, which has a lot of violence and shocking imagery and some nudity and kids running around getting in trouble, and the very different Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, which is much more understated and melancholy and is set some time after the blast, when the effects of radiation sickness start to creep in. Both are good titles. So old and curious and wonderful it doesn't even count as "classic" manga, The Four Immigrants Manga is a fascinating (and funny) account of race and culture and the American dream, created by a Japanese artist living in San Francisco in 1931. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, an exceptional artist, created two hard-to-find out-of-print historical manga, Joan and Jesus (the latter available only in e-book format). They have some violence and partial nudity but are extremely well-executed, although Yasuhiko's humanistic Jesus won't win over many fundamentalists. Two other historical manga which are aimed at teens but may be suitable for smart preteens are Kaze Hikaru (a romantic drama set in 1863 Japan) and Emma (technically set in the Edwardian era, but really more a fantasy than anything; it has some nudity later on). In terms of modern manga about "serious social issues," but without depictions of things like sexual content, With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child is decent.
One underappreciated older manga artist is Jiro Taniguchi, a creator of many hard-boiled action titles. However, his work also includes thoughtful literary stories such as The Ice Wanderer , which includes two tributes to Jack London's Arctic adventure tales (the stories do contain profanity and man-on-animal violence). Taniguchi's The Walking Man is an extremely unusual manga, a nearly wordless book which follows a businessman as he walks around his neighborhood and observes the bits of nature which intrude on the suburbs. It'd be easy to recommend it for all ages except that there are two scenes when the main character is briefly visible naked, in a nonsexual context such as relaxing in the bath. Again, if Maurice Sendak can do it...?
It's easy to stick to mainstream, modern shojo and shonen manga, but with all the tremendous variety of the medium, it's always good to encourage readers to broaden their horizons. And if they want to draw their own manga, don't bother sorting through the zillions of American books on the topic; learn it from the horse's mouth from something like Dark Horse's Style School, a translation of a Japanese "how to draw" instructional magazine. The intense instructions on Photoshop and the like may be too much for younger readers, and it does contain the occasional small nude image which may make it unsuitable for preteens, but it's generally very classy and respectable. It's also an excellent reminder of the many different styles in Japanese manga, which should encourage any artist to find their own way rather than slavishly imitating someone else's pink-haired girls and mecha designs. If there's not so many great manga for preteens, perhaps a preteen will just have to draw one?
Jason for writing this exhaustive article for Comics in the Classroom. His
Manga: The Complete Guide is out now - it is a great resource for fans and for people like me that know little about manga. You can read our interview with him HERE.
Contents on links on the Internet change continuously. It is advisable that teachers and parents preview all links before recommending them to children.
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