Recently, I’ve been looking at the circulation numbers of my children’s graphic novel collection. I do this periodically to make sure I’m buying popular material, that new trends haven’t popped up, that none of my bestsellers have “gone missing,” etc. After crunching all the numbers, it became very clear that there is a strong demand for manga aimed at the upper elementary and middle school reader. This is not the same thing as manga for kids. It means manga for middle schoolers. I’m repeating this because in my travels around different popular culture conventions, there seems to be a misperception that kids and middle schoolers have the same interests. They don’t, especially when it comes to girls.
Early adolescent development can happen as early as nine years old in girls. They begin to make the leap from concrete to abstract thinking. They start having mood swings, engage in intense daydreaming, and begin to define their independence, while still having strong dependency needs. Their brains, bodies, and emotions all begin to develop at different times, leaving them off-balance, unsure, and with a preoccupation with “normalcy,” based on what they see in the people around them.
Boys, on the other hand, don’t begin their early adolescent development until about age eleven. What this means is that while Johnny is still laughing at fart jokes, Janie may be giggling at the fart joke, but she’s also thinking that Johnny is kind of cute when he smiles, would you please stop calling her Janie when her name is Jane, thankyouverymuch, and what is Betty going to say if she finds out that Janie likes Johnny.
Tweens need books that speak to them, just like kids, teens, and adults do. Everything about these adolescents is changing: their bodies, their friendships, their interests. Books provide a window into a world tweens aren’t quite ready for, allowing them to explore without having to resort to asking embarrassing questions at a time when everything is embarrassing. At the moment, there isn’t much licensed manga that provides that window.
Younger readers want to read up, but they don’t necessarily want to read outside their experience level. They are looking for answers to questions they don’t know how to ask as well as looking for a good book to read. An eleven-year-old will pick up Ceres if it’s all that’s available. But wouldn’t it be better if she picked up From Far Away*? In both books the heroine is dealing with unknown powers, encountering strangers and learning whom to trust, fighting evil, and falling in love. Both books place an emphasis on action, with exciting chase scenes and plenty of battles. But Ceres could easily be considered a horror title, with all the blood and dismemberment that goes along with that genre. Both books also place an emphasis on romance, but Ceres moves the relationship past the crush and first love part of a relationship into on-screen sex and a resulting pregnancy. The two books provide the same kind of reading experience, but one doesn’t require a young reader to stretch beyond her comfort level. But if manga for teens is the only manga available, that’s what the tween reader will pick up.
CMX has been fantastic about licensing manga that appeals to this age group. Their E-rated titles, like Palette of 12 Secret Colors, Time Guardian, and Land of the Blindfolded are circulating at an amazing rate. But we need more. Del Rey’s series Sugar Sugar Rune, rated 10+, is doing just as well, as are VIZ’s all-ages title Ultra Maniac and Dark Horse’s unrated Translucent. But we need more. All of these books are great for middle school-age girls. They offer good stories with interesting plots that introduce topics girls are interested in, without expanding into areas they aren’t developmentally ready for. But we need more. Based on the numbers coming out of children’s graphic novel collections, the interest and demand for the books are there. Now we need the books.
*From Far Away is great for middle schoolers. Sadly, I can’t add it to my children’s collection because it’s rated T.