As I was casting about for ideas for this week’s column, I found myself consistently drawn back to a manga-related quandary in my own life that I have not quite been able to resolve. As you know, I have recently opened up my personal manga collection as a library for my students (with a few rules in place about age appropriateness). It’s gone about as well as I expected, which is to say that a small number have shown interest. My problem is this: while I have had no trouble at all recommending manga for my teen students, I have been pretty well flummoxed by requests for recommendations from parents of my tweens. These kids are mostly girls, 9-11 (some will turn 12 over the course of this school year), very smart, highly imaginative, fabulously ambitious, heavy readers, into the arts, and not particularly interested in romance or other “teen” concerns. And while I have a few series I’ve recommended for kids in this age range in the past, I don’t consider them ideal for a number of reasons. Let’s take a look:
1. Shugo Chara! | Peach Pit | Kodansha Comics – This is a title I love very much and have recommended for younger readers in the past, for lots of reasons. It’s got a fantastic female protagonist (and lots of other great girl characters as well), wonderful friendships, an emphasis on positivity and cooperation, action, adventure, pretty artwork, and some pretty enticing, tween-fantasy romance, the likes of which my childhood self would have eaten up with a spoon. Thing is, these girls are (for the most part) much, much less interested in boys than I was a their age, which is great, but also makes this a far less compelling choice. Also, the early storytelling and artwork, especially, I think might strike these girls as childish (which, I find, tends to be way less forgivable to actual children than it is to adults). So as much as I love this series, I am having trouble recommending it to these particular girls. Also in this category: Cardcaptor Sakura.
2. Sugar Sugar Rune | Moyoco Anno | Del Rey Manga – While this title is more combative than romantic, its wry take on romance as a competitive sport between girls is commenting on a social structure that, frankly, I’m hoping these particular girls are going to play a part in crushing. In my day, girls their age were already learning how to hate each other and bring each other down in pursuit of popularity with boys, and I see none of that at all in this collection of smart, empowered young girls. In fact, their kindness to each other pretty much blows me away any time I see them interacting as a group. The kind of competitiveness Sugar Sugar Rune so deftly skewers just does not seem to be part of their lives, and I’m hesitant to introduce it to them. Same problem (though less humorously approached): Fushigi Yugi.
3. Fullmetal Alchemist | Hiromu Arakawa | Viz Media – I love Fullmetal Alchemist. Everyone knows how much I love Fullmetal Alchemist. This is not a secret. So it should come to no surprise to anyone that it tends to be my number-one go-to manga recommendation for any kid with reading skills developed enough to take it on. It’s got incredible world-building, intricate plotting, compelling characters, heart-wrenching drama, hilarious comedy, action, adventure, fantastic artwork, minimal romance, and (hooray!) awesome female characters. Unfortunately, none of those female characters is the protagonist. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s a shounen manga, and its protagonists are among my favorites of all time. They are smart and funny and totally woman-friendly. They are written by an extremely talented woman. All these are reasons why this is my number-one, most recommended series for kids, including these girls. But man do I wish that I had something this good to recommend to them with girl protagonists, but without the romance themes they do not care about. At all. Similar problem: Hikaru no Go.
So let’s get to the real reason for this column. I do not doubt that there are series floating around that are perfect for my tween girls. I’m certain there are. I just may not own them. For the sake of these students (and for mine as well!), however, I’d be open to picking up a series or two to add to my library. So what do you recommend. With the girls I’ve described in mind, what manga would you recommend I give them?
AshLynx saysNovember 13, 2014 at 1:11 pm
I think I no longer remember what it was like to be 9-11 anymore. Although I do remember playing a lot of Pokemon, that part has stuck with me.
I liked Lizzie Newton, I don’t recall much romance there. Though Seven Seas only releasing two volumes, that’s annoying.
Cat Paradise might work, no romance really (except the bond between a human and their cat), and omfg, CATS! Magical talking cats! And the main is a girl too (with a CAT! I love cats… mine sits and purrs on me as I type), and at 5 volumes, it’s easy to add and quick to read.
In Kazan, part of the main goal is to find a Princess Peach that the main boy clearly loves, but it’s not romance heavy and it is full of action and good story. But yeah, boy mains, not girls. But more fantasy adventure series I’d still rec, even with boy leads instead of girls: +Anima, Kiichi and the Magic Books, and Key to the Kingdom (though based on the covers, I assumed that was a girl, but no, it’s a boy).
I’m debating on Palette of 12 Secret Colors. The main does like that one doctor guy, but then you get all the other awesome imagination in it too.
Are comedic crushes from side characters ok? Penguin Revolution might work in that case.
And to finish off my suggestions: It is impossible to go wrong with What’s Michael?, for any cat lover of any age, or for anyone who spends too much time looking at cat videos or photos online, it’s the best cat manga in existence! A first grader and a tenth grader would find something to love about this title, and the chapters are short at 8 pages (4 front and back), good to read in quick bursts or for readers who need more practice, it doesn’t seem as daunting. Michael is a male cat, but he’s not a magical talking cat either and not every chapter is about him anyway, it’s all about cats and cat people and oh god, I just love it so much!
Travis saysNovember 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm
I’m not a big fan of Sailor Moon, but it is a classic and was originally aimed at that late elementary school age group.
Last year a friend on LJ asked for recs for her 11-year-old daughter and this was my response. It does seem skewed male-protag heavy, but ones in there that fit the requirements you’re asking for are Young Miss Holmes and Yotsuba&! The same friend also ended up reading Fruits Basket with her daughter and they both loved it.
Ash Brown saysNovember 14, 2014 at 8:55 am
I wonder if Twin Spica might be a good series to recommend? It can be a bit melancholy and heart-wrenching at times, but it can also be very inspirational. It probably skews a little older than the 9-11 age group, but I think it would be within reach of more ambitious readers. (Sadly, Twin Spica is out of print, but many libraries collected it, and it’s now available digitally, too.)
Jenn saysNovember 14, 2014 at 2:25 pm
So Kitchen Princess by Natsumi Ando may not be ideal, since it is all about romance, but if any of your tweens are interested in cooking, it has recipes that would be good for a beginner chef to try. I would recommend Arisa, also by Ando, since it has a female protagonist and is a thriller/mystery – but the ending is awful. I would not want tween girls to think that ending is in any way acceptable.
I’ll recommend two series that have not been released yet as titles to consider. My Neighbor Seki is being released by Vertical starting in January. I have not read any of it, but I watched the anime adaptation. It is about a school girl watching the guy who sits next to her goof off in class. It was very cute and funny. Like any comedy, it can be hit or miss, but your tweens may enjoy it.
The second title is A Silent Voice which will be released by Kodansha next year. I’ve been reading it on Crunchyroll and can’t wait to buy it. It has some heavy themes about bullying, so it may not be appropriate for the younger tweens? Although the main character is male, the other protagonist is a female, and there are so many other great female characters in it. It’s one of the best manga titles I’ve read.
hapax saysNovember 15, 2014 at 4:44 pm
When my daughter was a tween she absolutely adored AZUMANGA DAIOH. It was, for her, a “safe” way to practice being a high schooler. And it’s sweet, and funny, and the friendships are all very powerful.
I think possibly MAGIC KNIGHTS RAYEARTH as well, for the type of young adolescent who wants a gloriously tragic ending.
Marfisa saysNovember 16, 2014 at 9:17 am
Actually, the series that comes closest to fitting your desired parameters isn’t a manga. It’s the two different comic book series based on “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic”—one with the same title as the TV show, and a newer spin-off called “My Little Pony: Friends Forever.” So far there’s been at least one trade paperback collection of the first series, but I’m not sure if that’s happened with the “Friends Forever” spin-off yet. Unfortunately the individual issues of each comic cost a hefty $3.99. These series might also be considered too childish (or at least childish-looking) by girls who haven’t actually seen the show.
As for actual manga, there’s a two-volume series called “Sugar Princess: Skating to Win” by the author of “Hana-Kimi,” about a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl who is “discovered” skating at a local ice rink by a coach who urges her to take up the sport professionally. I remember this as being primarily concerned with stuff like persuading parents to let her do it, coming up with a costume to perform in without freaking mom out by asking her to spend lots of money, learning the appropriate techniques, and, at the coach’s suggestion, trying to persuade an established boy skater whose performance she admires to be her partner for pairs skating. The other skater is a good-looking guy and she is somewhat attracted to him, but if I remember correctly, at least initially, the heroine’s determination to get him to be her partner comes across more as hero worship of his awesome skating than an excuse to spend time with a cute boy. However, the Wikipedia entry on the series makes it sound as if the romantic elements may be more prominent than my recollections suggest, so you might want to check it out yourself first. The English-language edition was released by Viz some years ago and might still be available directly from them or from online retailers like Right Stuf, although it’s unlikely to be easy to find in stores at this point.
When the English version of “Non Non Biyori” comes out (some publisher recently announced plans to release it—next spring or summer, I think—although I can’t remember which one offhand), you might also want to give that a try. It’s a heartwarming, often amusing slice of life series about a ten-year-old girl from Tokyo who moves to a small rural town and the oddball hijinks that ensue with her and the four other kids in the local one-room schoolhouse, all of whom are also girls (except for the older brother of two of the other girls, who literally never speaks and often barely appeared in some episodes of the anime). There is a potential problem with the fact that in the anime (I haven’t actually read the manga, so I don’t know how exact the parallels are), the girl from Tokyo develops such a major girl crush on another girl who looks younger than she does, but is actually a seventh grader, that she makes multiple rag dolls of the other girl which even she realizes may look weird and stalkerish to the other girl and her sister when they unexpectedly drop by to visit. (In the event, they just assume that it’s some sort of sewing project for school.) Also, the Tokyo girl, though not particularly voluptuous, is somewhat more physically developed for her age than one might expect, to the point that she looks more like a twelve- or thirteen-year-old than a ten-year-old. In the anime this occasionally leads to comments about comparative bra sizes, etc., that some American parents might find inappropriate.
“Barakamon” might also be worth a look. The protagonist is a twenty-something male professional calligrapher who’s been exiled to an obscure fishing village after a disastrous public confrontation with an important calligraphy critic, but the irrepressible little neighbor girl who keeps dropping by to see what he’s up to in the formerly empty house that she and her friends had been using as an unofficial clubhouse plays almost as big a role as he does. The first English-language volume just came out a few weeks ago.
Olivia saysNovember 16, 2014 at 6:34 pm
I never thought I’d see the day that young girls being uninterested in romance would prove to be a problem! I’ve had the issue before with my (intelligent, wonderful) 12 year-old sister that she’s far more critical of some series than I am, often taking issue with unhealthy relationship dynamics and occasional bit of fanservice that I let slide. She was also very disappointed when her female classmates asked her to recommend manga, then specified they only wanted ones with hot boys. I think she’d fit right in with your class!
In any case, some of her favourite series are From Far Away (out of print but we own the series nearly in full), Skip Beat!, Oresama Teacher, Natsume’s Book of Friends, Chii’s Sweet Home and Claymore. The last one is definitely violent, but more mature girls that age might still enjoy it, and it’s nothing but awesome women doing fighting monsters and bonding with each other over their corpses.
Zoe Alexander saysNovember 18, 2014 at 11:27 pm
I second Marfisa’s recommendation of “Sugar Princess: Skating to Win” and hapax’s suggestion of “Azumanga Daioh”. Those were two titles that immediately came to my mind as being appropriate for tweens who aren’t very interested in romance. (I also love “Sailor Moon”, “Fruits Basket”, and “Magic Knight Rayearth”, but I’m not sure they’re exactly what you’re asking for. Maybe just the first half of MKR?)
Another series that they may like is “Ultramaniac”. There is some romance, but the main focus of the story is the close friendship between Ayu and Nina, and the fact that Nina is a witch in training might appeal if your students are “Harry Potter” fans.
Maybe “Angelic Layer” or “Karakuri Odette”? It’s been a while since I read them, but I don’t remember there being that much of an emphasis on romance. Maybe a little, but not a whole lot.