Teens and adults fueled the original U.S. manga boom as well as its recent second wave, but kids like comics too—in fact, we’ve seen a huge uptick in graphic novels for readers 12 and under in the past decade. But what about manga? Everyone knows about Pokémon (and we do love it so), but what else is out there?
Here’s a look at 10 kid-friendly titles, some of which may surprise you!
Hikaru no Go, by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata
Perhaps “action-packed” is not the first adjective that comes to mind when one is talking about a manga based on a board game, but Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata (the artist for Death Note and Bakuman) pull it off. Slackerish sixth-grader Hikaru Shindo finds new purpose in life when he’s fiddling with an old Go board and is possessed by the ghost of Sai, a Go master from the Heian Era (794-1185). Hikaru knows nothing about Go, but Sai pesters him to play, and he soon catches the attention of Akira Toya, a serious Go player and the son of a modern Go master. As with all shonen manga, this 23-volume series is rife with friends, enemies, and complications, and a goal everyone is striving for (playing the “Divine Move”). But it also has lessons about playing Go—the games were created under the supervision of a professional player, so there’s plenty of attention to detail. And plenty of action, even if it comes from placing stones on a board, rather than beheading enemies.
Barakamon, by Satsuki Yoshino
It’s the city slicker versus the crafty locals, Japanese style! Young prodigy calligrapher Seishuu Handa makes a career-ending blunder and slinks away to a remote island to hone his craft and contemplate what comes next. Rural life is not the simple idyll he thought it would be, though: the island kids are using his house as a hangout, and one little imp tags along wherever he goes. Plus the locals, despite their broad accents and parochial lives, are savvy in their own way. This is a charming, fun manga, and the prequel, Handa-Kun, is a great all-ages read as well.
Yotsuba&! by Kyohiko Azuma
Yotsuba Kowai is a green-haired five-year-old girl who lives with her adopted father and is perpetually curious about the world around her. Like many five-year-olds, Yotsuba is always turned up to 11: when she wants to do something, there’s no stopping her, and she’s enthusiastic about everything-pestering the girls next door to play with her, catching cicadas, riding her bike as far as she can. This is a domestic slice-of-life comedy told in short chapters, and Azuma has a clean, linear style, making this an easy and fun read for kids; even though the series is written for an adult audience, it really works well for all ages.
Cowa, by Akira Toriyama
From the creator of Dragon Ball, Cowa! is a one-volume story about a trio of the least scary monsters ever. Paifu is half vampire, half were-koala, so whenever he sees a cross, he turns into a raging… koala. Jose is a shape-shifting ghost who farts when he is nervous. Arpon is a monster boy who is always picking fights—and losing them. When the monster flu comes to town, the three of them undertake a perilous journey to Horned-Owl Mountain to get some medicine from the witch who lives there. They trick a former sumo wrestler with a sketchy past into helping them, and they encounter various monsters and perils along the way. Toriyama is a master manga-ka, and his characters are full of energy and life; while there is some cartoony violence, the characters often use their brains instead of their brawn to solve problems.
Young Miss Holmes, by Kaoru Shintani
Available only digitally, Young Miss Holmes is a clever take on the classic Sherlock Holmes stories: in this version, it’s Holmes’s 10-year-old niece who actually solves the mysteries, with a bit of help from her two maids, who have many non-domestic skills. Shintani’s stories mesh nicely with the originals in a what-if-it-really-happened-this-way sort of a way, and the manga is a really fun read for kids and—maybe even more so for adults who have already read the original stories.
Chi’s Sweet Home, by Konami Kanata
Chi is a little lost kitten who is taken in by a family-whose apartment building doesn’t allow pets. Some of the gentle humor in this series comes from the family’s attempts to hide her from the neighbors, but most of it is just Chi doing kitten things—getting distracted by a new object, chasing and playing, falling asleep in someone’s shoe. (There’s a bit of potty humor at the beginning, as “chi” means “pee,” and the cat and the little boy in the family basically get toilet-trained at the same time.) We can read Chi’s interior monologue (presented with kind of an annoying lisp), but the humans don’t always know what she’s thinking. This was designed to be kid-friendly—the stories are short, the characters are cute, the art is in color, and it reads left to right. If that’s not enough cuteness for you, check out Konata’s other, shorter series Fuku Fuku Kitten Tales, a series of brief stories about a kitten living with an older woman.
Fluffy, Fluffy Cinnamoroll, by Yumi Tsukirino
Cinnamoroll is a flying puppy with a tail that spirals like a cinnamon roll (hence the name); he’s a creation of the Sanrio company, which makes him sort of a cousin of Hello Kitty. He lives in a café and likes to hang out with his friends Chiffon, Espresso, Cappuccino, and baby Milk, although they are sometimes menaced by a dark cloud called Cavity. Like Chi’s Sweet Home, this five-volume manga is broken up into very short chapters, and the adventures are pretty simple.
Happy Happy Clover, by Sayuri Tatsuyama
Ready for more cuteness? Clover is a bunny who lives in the woods with her friends, a very diverse group of bunnies (and a hare), as well as a flying squirrel. They occasionally go to a school presided over by Professor Hoot, an owl, and they like to explore the outer reachers of their home forest and get into mildly naughty scrapes. This series is five volumes long.
Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, by Shiro Amano
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, by Shiro Amano
Kingdom Hearts II, by Shiro Amano
Kingdom Hearts/358/2 Days, by Shiro Amano
These books are all based on the Kingdom Hearts video game, in which “real-life” (manga-style) kids go on quests alongside famous Disney characters, notably Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. This is the sort of book that will appeal to true fans, as the stories make the most sense to those who have played the games and already have a sense of the world. In addition to the manga, there are several novels: Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts II, as well as an art book, Shiro Amano: The Artwork of Kingdom Hearts.
Yo-Kai Watch, by Noriyuki Konishi
Yo-Kai Watch is a major game/anime/manga/toy franchise in Japan, and it came to English-speaking audiences in all those formats as well. Nathan, the human character, has a special watch that lets him see supernatural creatures. He seeks them out and they solve problems together. It’s a bit like Pokémon, without all the fighting. Although the term “yokai” refers to traditional Japanese spirits, the supernatural characters in this series are original.
Splatoon, by Sankichi Hinodeya
This manga is based on the video game—a third-person shooter game that’s kind of like paintball gone wild, as the characters use various tools to spread colored inks in order to gain control of their territory. Honestly, this manga will make a lot more sense to those who have played the game than to those who haven’t, but regardless, it’s a cheery action story, and lots of fun.
What kid-friendly manga do you recommend?