Understanding Manga with Library Pass

Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in a Library Pass panel titled Understanding Manga.  I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak alongside a group of fantastic Manga Enthusiasts:

  • Mike Barltrop, Toronto District School Board
  • Jillian Ehlers, NYC Department of Education
  • Michael Gianfrancesco, North Providence High School, RI
  • Ashley R. Hawkins, NYC Department of Education
  • Kat Kan, Brodart Books & Library Services

A bit about Library Pass

Library Pass brings graphic novels, comics, and manga to people around the world.  Their Comics Plus system helps educators access a wealth of titles in their own schools.  I’ll let Library Pass speak for itself, because their description is a perfect one:

[Comics Plus is] a unique gateway into the diverse and engaging world of digital comic books, graphic novels, and manga—with cost-effective unlimited and simultaneous checkouts.

With Comics Plus®, students and library patrons can read more than 20,000 digital comics, graphic novels, and manga—including popular titles from publishers like Archie Comics, Andrews McMeel, BOOM Studios, Capstone, Dark Horse, Dynamite, Tokyopop, Valiant, and many more.

Every title is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for offline reading, with unlimited, simultaneous checkout to maximize circulation through book clubs, reading programs, makerspace activities, and other engaging initiatives.


Questions: Asked and Answered

During the panel there were a number of fantastic questions, but limited to time there wasn’t always the ability to give as rich, or as deep a dive, as some wanted.  For that reason, I’ve looked back over the questions, and tried to give a little bit more for those looking to understand the value, and importance of Manga in libraries, in classrooms, and in personal collections.

What is it about manga that makes it so engaging?  

The thing that makes Manga so engaging is that it reaches a wide audience.  There’s manga about everything.  Baseball, adventure, horror, even baking

The Manga Classics texts have turned classic stories like Frankenstine and Anne of Green Gables into really accessible pieces.  When I teach Shakespeare now, I use the Manga Classics versions to help students access and decode the language. 

Their new authentic modern-translations are something I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on, too, when they’re released in a few months.

Why is it an effective tool for engaging readers of all abilities?  

The reason manga is effective is because it’s engaging.  Most manga function as a high/low text – high interest, low barriers to access.  And, the thing that makes them even better is that they have a number of tropes that readers become aware of.  Certain visuals indicate emotions, others indicate if a character is good or bad.  This helps with decoding.

Unlike other formats, manga has a visual language to explain emotions.  When someone is upset, there is a specific visual cue to indicate that.  When they’re upset, there’s another way to express that.  Exhaustion, attraction, surprise: all of these things are communicated through the visual language that is consistent from text to text, and artist to artist.

It’s because of this that people are able to understand manga, jump in, and quickly understand the worlds and ideas presented in those texts.  The more one reads manga, the more it becomes the clearest way to access any form of narrative.

Where do I start with my collection?   

When I started reading, Manga was difficult to find, and even harder to learn about.  I used to go to the Anime North convention with a giant box, or two, or three.  I went with an empty trunk, or van, if we’re being honest.  I would buy whatever I could get my hands on, because it was the only time of the year most manga was available for purchase.  I wasn’t always as organized as I could have been.  That’s why my collection of some titles are: volume 1, 7, 8, 14, 14, 14, 22.

When bookstores started selling manga, that was a big deal.  But now, you can go online and get anything.  Library Plus and Comics Pass have made that an incredibly straightforward process.

So where do you start? 

You start by asking the potential readers what they’re interested in, because what interests you might not interest them.  Then, you google “[ENTER TOPIC HERE] Best Manga”  For example “baking best manga” lists a ton of results.  If you see the same book on a number of lists, it’s likely a good one to investigate!

What subject areas are best for my environment? 

I’m a big believer in a little bit for everyone.  It doesn’t matter if you’re in a library, an elementary classroom, a science room, or an English classroom.  Everything can be approached from a variety of lenses.  The key thing here isn’t what you think is best, but what your readers will want to read.  At the end of the day, you can have great books, but if your readers won’t open them, what’s the point?

How do I explain Manga to my colleagues?

This is a difficult question. Do they already accept that comics are a worthwhile reading tool?  If so, Manga is Japanese comics. 

If not, there are two approaches:  The first is explaining why comics are important for readers.  The other is trying to differentiate the two by claiming that manga, unlike western comics, doesn’t deal with flashy super heroes, but rather coming of age, or personal-narrative driven stories.  And look, we know western comics are like that too.  But, you do what you have to do to get that budget!

For traditional leadership teams, I really think Manga Classics are a good way to bridge the gap, because they’ve heard of The Scarlet Letter, or Jane Eyre, or Edgar Allan Poe.  They’ve definitely heard of Shakespeare.  So it’s a good entrance to show the value of these books. 

Then, once your foot is in the door, you can expand with your next purchase order.

How can I learn the difference in genres?

If we’re talking about genres like Shonen and Shojo, I’m not a fan of them because they take a very hard gender-based binary line.  There’s an idea that Shonen is for boys, and Shojo is for girls. 

Obviously, there are a number of reasons why this can be problematic, and reinforce gender-normative beliefs. 

If we’re talking about genres like we would anything else, then go for it: Go read some crime manga (Death Note), some Sci-fi (FLCL), or some slice-of-life (Train Man).  It’s as varied as any other medium.

What are your favorite resources?

If you want to dip your toes in, head over the viz.com and check out their Shonen Jump collection.  They offer a ridiculous amount of issues for free!  So, if you’re not sure which of the dozens of series might be best for you, you can browse chapters from each of them to learn about the art style, and writing style, and find something  that works for you.

I send my students to learning.mangaclassics.com to take part in the free online course using Romeo and Juliet.  What’s great about it is that they’ve put the ENTIRE version of Romeo and Juliet online for free.  You can create a free account through gmail, and read it from start to finish.

There are also sites like BookWalker.jp which have free manga you can pick up.  This is where I often look for the samplers that have bits from a bunch of series in them.  It’s a Japanese website, but again you can use a gmail account to make a free login, and the texts are in English, so it’s all good.

How do you purchase manga for your school?

When I want to purchase manga, I just have to go through a supplier that we’re registered with.  When I purchase, I’m lucky enough to have control over my budget, so I don’t have to worry about anyone delicing my order, or having to justify my order to people who have never read manga before.

It’s a nice, easy, system that I am privileged to enjoy.  I can’t imagine having to justify each title, and have someone tell you “no” after you’ve done all the research.  Especially, if they’re not fully aware of what Manga is all about.

But, if you do have to justify your purchases, then giving a brief plot summary, explaining the connections you can make between those titles and books that, those that hold the purse strings, already appreciate, will go a long way to getting you what you want.

Ultimately, you just need to show value, track circulation stats, and continue to expand your collection.

What recommendations/reviews do you consider when you make your purchases?

My friends.  My friends are my reviewers and my recommenders.  I know so many people who live deep in CrunchyRoll, and other sites like that, reading everything as it comes out. 

They tell me what’s hot and current – because there are so many series coming all the time, and some are only a few volumes, that would get lost in the hundreds of other volumes. 

Reddit.  Reddit is also your friend.  There are lots of manga groups that are more than willing to help you out.  When you say you’re a teacher, or looking to bring in texts, there are people who live their life for manga and just want what they love to be shared.  So ask questions, and crowdsource your answers.  A call out on Facebook goes a long way too!

And, of course, if you’re looking to access a wealth of manga, I would be remiss not to mention Comics Plus.

How do you integrate Manga into your Classroom?

This is the big one, right?  So you’ve got this tool… what do you do with it?  Well, the first thing I do is that I don’t make a distinction between manga and other texts.  Manga is a text.  A song is a text, a video game is a text.  All texts have great value.

My course focuses on teaching key literacy skills.  I have developed lesson plan packages from the ground up, featuring manga texts as the primary text that has just as much value as anything else.

Focusing on all comics in the classroom has been a huge passion of mine, and allowing students to differentiate their reading, by approaching something they’ve self-selected is of great importance.

If you’d like to know more, check out my Literature Circles 2.0 package that includes timelines, explanations, and every single assignment sheet you’ll need to run a full unit for your class.

Remember, when we’re talking about manga, we’re not talking about some side-unit, or something to prepare students for real books.  Manga are real books, they are unique texts, and it’s so important that we allow our students to engage with reading in a fun, and self-directed way.

Michael Barltrop has been teaching since 2006, integrating Manga, Video Games, and TTRPGs into his classroom. He has acted as the head of English, Literacy, and Universal Design.

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