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My First Manga: Or How I Learned to Read "Backwards" and Love Asian Comics
by Snow Wildsmith
by Snow Wildsmith

I have almost 1000 volumes of manga in my personal collection. Manga comprises two-thirds of what I read, for personal pleasure and for professional book reviews. However four years ago, I had never read a manga and couldn't imagine calling myself a fan. I knew that I needed to know manga for the same reason that librarians need to know any type of media—reader's advisory and collection development—and so I set out to learn more.

In 2005, I took a job as head of Youth Services at a public library that had recently tripled its size and its budget. I was going to be doing a lot of collection development for ages 0-18 and one area in need of growth was graphic novels. The library had never had comics and while I felt comfortable with Western graphic novels, Asian titles were new to me. Luckily I found a young woman working in the circulation department who was an otaku (hardcore fan). She took me under her wing and taught me about manga—what the various genres are, what the different visual cues mean, how to get used to reading right-to-left versus reading left-to-right. With her help, I was able to find manga series that clicked with me. That encouraged me to keep reading until I felt that I understood the appeal of manga. I never set out to become a fan. I just wanted to learn so that I could better serve my patrons.

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A lot of librarians are aware of the need to have a graphic novel collection. They regularly include graphic novels in displays, reading lists, and booktalks. But many librarians still seem to be reluctant to try to "get" manga. They say that it is too hard to read or that they tried one but didn't like it. Just as we need to know about the latest trends in fiction and non-fiction we also need to be aware of manga. The circulation figures alone justify the need for manga knowledge. But it helps to have someone give you tips and pointers to help you as you read your first few manga. Here is my advice as you begin to try to appreciate manga:

  • Remember that manga is NOT a genre.

It is a format, as are audiobooks, DVDs, and graphic novels. Whereas in America until recently mainstream comics were mostly one genre—superheroes—in Japan manga is produced in a wide variety of genres, for all ages, and aimed at both sexes equally. Though the American market for manga is mostly focused on books popular with teens, if every manga published in Japan were translated into English and published in America, we would have a manga for every part of our library collection. This is helpful to remember as you begin looking for a manga that will appeal to you.

Try to find a genre of manga that relates to a genre that you like in fiction. If you are not a romance fiction reader then you probably won't want to start with a romance manga, but if you love horror, then you might be best off starting with a horror manga. The first manga series that clicked with me was Mars by Fuyumi Soryo (Tokyopop), a high school drama. As a teen librarian, I already read and liked a lot of teen drama/romances, so reading the same type of story in a graphic format made for an easier transition. I know another librarian who loves fiction with recipes, so the first manga she "got" was Kitchen Princess by Natsumi Ando and Miyuki Kobayashi (Del Rey Manga), a light story about a girl who loves to cook. It spoke to what she was interested in.

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  • Get help from an expert.

If you have never been a mystery reader, but you want to know more about the mysteries, you'd probably turn to a fan for advice. Manga is no different. It helps to have a fan teach you about it. There are two great types of experts to whom you can turn: the professional fan and the fan in the stacks.

Two books written by professional fans will be valuable tools for you as you begin to read manga. Understanding Manga and Anime (Libraries Unlimited, 2007) was written by librarian Robin Brenner, who is now a fan, but who first started reading manga as an adult. She wrote her book to help those who are new to manga understand the characteristics and genres of manga. Manga: the Complete Guide by Jason Thompson (Random House, 2007) is an encyclopedic work which will give you an overview of every manga series published in English, written by a man who read them all. (Now that his book is complete, Thompson is continuing his work at Suvudu.com in 365 Days of Manga.)

The best companion to both of these excellent reference works is the fan in the stacks, aka teens! Ask the teens in your library to help you out. Tell them your experience with graphic novels in general (are you new to the format or are you already comfortable with Western style graphic novels?) and then tell them what you know about manga right now (nothing, have read one but didn’t like it, or have read a few but want to know more). Ask them to help you select some manga titles that they think will be easy for a new manga reader to understand.

You can also visit your local comic book shop or bookstore (preferably one that attracts a lot of teens). Stand in the aisle of the manga section and randomly pick up titles and look at them. Look friendly, approachable, and slightly lost. Often when I’m browsing in the manga section I will have teens come up and say, "Do you read manga too?" If this happens to you, tell them that you are a librarian and that you are trying to learn more about manga. Ask them to tell you their favorites. Take notes. This will make a big impression on them and may even get you new patrons for your library. Many stores will have at least one employee who is a manga fan and they are equally great resources.

  • Read reviews and more.

My favorite ways of keeping up with manga are reviews and publisher's emails. For reviews, I use both print and online sources. In addition to standard library review sources, look for the ICv2 Guide. It's a review journal aimed at librarians focusing on graphic novels. It also features the information on hot and upcoming titles.

Online review sites often feature many more manga reviews than print journals. Two of my favorite sources are Good Comics for Kids, School Library Journal's comic review blog focusing on graphic novels for kids and teens, and Graphic Novel Reporter, which offers reviews, news articles, creator interviews and more. Reviews are separated into adult fiction, adult nonfiction, teens, and kids. You can sign up for their biweekly email and get the latest reviews, but all of their reviews are also archived on their site. (Full disclosure: I review for all three sources recommended, but even if I didn't review for them I would still recommend them.)

Many manga publishers have an email newsletter for fans. This is an excellent way to know what's coming out and what publishers think is going to be hot. Check out the websites of Aurora, Del Rey Manga, Digital Manga, GoComi, TokyoPop, VIZ, and Yen Press and look for their newsletter signup.

  • Embrace your inner child…or adult.

If you’re having trouble getting into manga stories aimed at teens, try reading up or down. Manga for children is a growing market in America. Many titles published for children in Japan aren't good choices for distribution in America due to cultural differences, but publishers are beginning to find more series that translate well. Some suggestions are Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma (Yen Press), Happy Happy Clover by Sayuri Tatsuyama (VIZ), Dinosaur Hour by Hitoshi Shioya (VIZ), and Ninja Baseball Kyuma by Shunshin Maeda (UDON). They are often light, happy stories, so don’t expect them to be overly deep.

American publishers are releasing more manga aimed at the adult reader who wants depth in a story, both classic tales and newer works. You could try Swallowing the Earth by Osamu Tezuka (Digital Manga)—a classic manga about sexism and its effects on society, Children of the Sea by Daisuke Igarashi (VIZ)—an environmental story, Monster by Naoki Urasawa (VIZ)—a psychological thriller, or With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child by Keiko Tobe (Yen Press)—a fictional parenting story.

  • Don't get discouraged.

Learning to appreciate manga takes practice. You didn't learn anything quickly the first time around. Allow yourself several manga series before you begin to understand why it is popular and what the appeal is. Read a little slower at first as you get used to reading right-to-left or as you learn to mesh the pictures and the words into one image in your mind.

Do you have to become a huge manga fan in order to best serve your patrons or students? No. But you know the importance of accepting your patrons' reading interests and you feel compelled to learn about their obsessions. With practice—and a little help—you can become more comfortable with manga. Your patrons will thank you for it and in the end, nothing is more satisfying.

Snow Wildsmith is a teen librarian and writer. She has served on committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee, the 2009 and 2008 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults Committees, and the 2007 Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2’s Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on a nonfiction book series for teens.