Manga is a Japanese style of print cartoon or graphic novel. Angela Youngman looks at how Manga novels might be used to inspire children in school towards an interest in literature

Since the Second World War, children have become increasingly dependent on visual images as a way of learning. Television, cinema, computers and computer graphics dominate their way of life. This is not surprising, given the fact that many children find it easier to visualise images rather than read words. Looking at picture books is, after all, the first introduction a child has to the world of books and stories. Current trends – particularly the growth of computer graphics and graphic stories – are emphasising this skill. Children nowadays are more visually literate than older generations.

Traditionally, as children grow older, there are fewer and fewer pictures accompanying text within books. The emphasis shifts towards reading words and forming one’s own images of the events portrayed within a book. Over the past decade a new trend has emerged which is beginning to challenge these traditional ideas – graphic novels. There has been a massive growth in graphic novels – both western style and eastern Manga style – which are being read avidly. The reading age of these novels is steadily decreasing from adult to teenage, and has now broken into the top levels of primary school.

So, what does it mean for teachers who are seeking to encourage reading among their pupils? What exactly are these graphic novels, and how can they help? Does the emphasis on visual images create a risk that children will be less interested in conventional stories? Are there any positive aspects that teachers can develop to work with their students to build reading skills?

What is Manga?
Firstly, it is essential to identify exactly what is meant by graphic and Manga styles. The origins of Western graphic novels lie very much in the world of children’s comics and American picture novels. Unfortunately, this means that graphic novels are often seen as almost second-class reading material. It is frequently overlooked by teachers and seen as just versions of comics like Beano and Dandy, often focusing on superheroes such as Superman, Teenage Mutant Turtles and Batman. The stories are written in a series of comic strips collected into a longer format. These contain a series of drawn images in which words move the story along primarily via speech bubbles.

Manga style is somewhat different. It originated in Japan and began to take off in the UK about five years ago. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Manga as ‘Japanese comic books and cartoon films with a science fiction or fantasy theme’. As Paul Gravett, author of the definitive study Manga – Sixty Years of Japanese Comics points out, ‘This is wrong on two counts: Manga are not Japanese animation (which is closely related, but is properly known as Anime) and they actually deal with almost every theme imaginable, not just sci-fi and fantasy.’ Although the majority of Manga books are sourced from Japan, there are an increasing number of UK, American and Canadian artists working in this format.

The uses of Manga
Well-known stories are being successfully turned into Manga/graphic novel formats. Earlier this year, the publisher Self Made Hero produced a highly-acclaimed Manga version of two Shakespeare plays: Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. They make an extremely good introduction to the traditional plays, as they help children understand the plots of the story. Emma Hayley of Self Made Hero, comments, ‘It is a very visual medium. We thought that Manga would work well with Shakespeare because he wrote the stories to be played out on a stage rather than just read aloud. Manga brings that visual element into play.’ Teachers at Blacken School commented that it was ‘creative and inspiring’.

All too frequently when studying Shakespeare, the story lines can get lost amid the need to understand the language. Classical Comics have also introduced comic book versions aimed at primary school children that include modified text versions and a graphic-style original text. Such picture-based books can help introduce the stories of Shakespeare – who, after all, did create extremely good storylines – to younger audiences. Karen Wemborn, managing director of Classical Comics, says:

‘Primary schools have welcomed it. They are using all text versions of Macbeth. Many are using the quick text and plain text versions in class, and then the original text in reading groups. They use it for differentiated teaching. No one feels left out, because they are all reading the same book, just different texts. Some of the children demanded to read the original text immediately because they could understand the text when they saw it together with the pictures. For children who learn visually, they can follow the words much better.’

Manga now
Manga is linked to the Japanese animation style known as Anime. This is drawn animation and is very familiar to children through the work of Studio Ghibli. Films such as the Oscar winning Spirited Away, The Cat Returns and Howl’s Moving Castle utilise the Manga style of drawing. Extremely imaginative, it appeals to children of all ages. Anime films are frequently shown on cable channels as well as BBC and ITV.

Consequently, it is no surprise that Manga has taken off in a big way. It is now the fastest growing sector of literature. Although the first Manga books to appear in this country were quite explicitly adult; successive introductions, particularly those from the leading publisher TokyoPop, have been suitable for a much wider age group. Manga has become highly popular with teenagers who see it as ‘cool’, something different, a medium with which most adults were unfamiliar. Manga books have a distinctive illustrative style, and the books had to be read from the back to the front; pages from left to right.

The indication now is that 10 to 11 year olds are increasingly reading Manga, and growing attention is being focused on the potential offered by the primary market. Viz Media, for example, is planning a series of workshops, book groups and books for primary schools during the academic year 2008 to 2009. These will focus on comic books based on Studio Ghibli films, which are ideal for younger readers. These are drawn Manga style, using pictures and text from the scripts of films like Howl’s Moving Castle and Valley of the Wind. There is even a beginner’s guide to Manga entitled Manga/Anime 101, which is ideal for teachers seeking to understand the subject.

In June 2008, the School Library Association published a list of the top 200 books to get boys and girls reading – Manga and graphic novels were included. Typical titles included Jeff Limke’s Jason and the Quest for the Argonauts and Satoshi Kitamura’s Stone Age Boy, which covers the adventures of a boy who trips and falls into the Stone Age. Many of the titles are being sent to primary schools in England on loan under a £5m government scheme which involves public libraries selecting books from the list and delivering them to local schools. The list was compiled to highlight some of the best books that had been published in the last few years and which libraries might not already own. A Japanese Manga version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was included, as was Daisuke Higuchi’s Whistle – a story about a football team. Chris Brown, a former primary school headteacher and author of the list, commented:

‘The comic strip style has great appeal. On the Continent, picture strip books take up quite a high proportion of the whole children’s book sales and are very prominent in shop displays. But here we still tend to be a little nose-in-the-air about them. Perhaps that adds greatly to their attraction for boys!’

Bringing books into schools
Choosing age-appropriate Manga books is made easier by the way in which the main suppliers Tokyopop and Viz use an age appropriate symbol on their books such as Y for youth or 10+, and A for all ages. Sports-based manga books are extremely popular with younger readers dealing with subjects they are interested in – for example in Whistle, Sho Kazamatsuri dreams of becoming the best footballer possible.  There are 18 books in the series. While in Slam Dunk, the focus is on basketball players. Ninja- style books are also popular with boys; while girls tend to opt for fantasy and magic, school and relationship-based stories. The Scholastic book clubs are currently trying out books such as Norita, which is aimed at young girls.

The biggest fear among teachers and literati is that graphic and Manga novels contribute to illiteracy. Paul Gravett points out that in 2002 The New York Times reported that Japan had a low literacy level because people preferred to read Manga rather than memorising the thousands of characters needed to decipher Japanese script. He writes, ‘The paper was subsequently forced to print a retraction, acknowledging that Japan had a very high literacy rate, far ahead of America’s.’

Now Manga is included in the American Get Caught Reading campaign. Through celebrity involvement, Get Caught Reading leads by example. Seeing sports players and others reading Manga, inspired many children to try the books as well.

Often the visual nature of graphic and Manga books means that teachers regard them as most suitable for reluctant readers and those who have difficulty reading. While such readers undoubtedly benefit from this type of material, it should not be confined to these groups alone. Both graphic novels and Manga are read extensively by children of all abilities who benefit considerably from the exposure to diverse cultures and different types of stories. Often it encourages them to create their own stories, learning to draw Manga and write appropriate captions.

The reality is that anything which gets children reading is to be encouraged. Literacy sessions in schools can tend to be dominated by the need to absorb the basics of reading and writing; the pressures of the curriculum mean that there is less time for children to simply read for pleasure. Not all children will have access to lots of books and public libraries – schools need to be able to provide some facilities for pupils to read. As Chris Brown points out in Boys into Books 5-11, part of the Riveting Reads series:

‘Those who take pleasure in books and reading will more rapidly develop abilities to differentiate when handling information and to more precisely apply whatever they might need for any task or purpose. Reading is an essential tool in the process and progress of learning.’

Consequently, schools need to be able to provide space and time for children to explore books, experience different types of books and simply read. They do not need intensive, highly concentrated novels all the time – other formats have equal worth and may be more suitable if a child simply wants to relax with a book for a few minutes.

Beyond the first steps
Often reading a graphic story or a Manga book can be sufficient to set a child thinking, and actually enjoying reading rather than enduring a story forced upon them by a well-meaning teacher. ‘A good primary school library is a reservoir of books and other resources. It is where, as a child, you make connections in your learning, connections that span the artificial boundaries of subject delineation, and where you develop those transferable skills of information literacy, analysis, evaluation and synthesis that form the bedrocks of lifelong learning.’

Ken Boston, chief executive of the QCA, states, ‘By mixing tradition with a more creative approach to the curriculum, we will achieve our objective of producing successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens.’

Perhaps the last word should go to a parent writing on the Times Online site. Polly Beaumont wrote:

‘My son, his friends and now his class at school have taken to a graphic version of Macbeth at a speed which has astonished both parents and teachers. (These weren’t Manga, but traditional comic style from Classical Comics). So we parents have ordered the rest of the series.’

Angela Youngman is a teacher and freelance writer