I have a child who loves books, but is a bit of a reluctant reader. Picture books are great. He loves looking at pictures, and the lack of too much text clustered on a page has prevented him from scampering away in fear. He is actually a very accomplished reader, and can read gaming manuals when he wants to without any problems. So rather than it being an issue because he has trouble reading, it is more of the case that unless something visual has grabbed his attention first, whether it be the computer game graphics of the game he is immersed in and wanting to improve his efforts, or the drawings in a picture book, he is unlikely to feel like wasting his time reading the text to see if it is any good or not.
Now, we read a LOT of manga in this house, but a good bit of manga available in English is aimed at persons at least 9-10 years old. Seeing the popularity surge of graphic novels and seeing an unfilled niche in the English language market, publisher Udon Entertainment sought out the rights to a few Japanese language titles aimed at younger children. Called kodomo manga, or children's manga, it is aimed at children aged 6 and up. They have four children's titles out thus far. Three are aimed at girls while the fourth is aimed straight at the heart of boys and sports minded girls. This title is called Ninja Baseball Kyuma.
I have to admit that though I myself am a huge manga fan, the title gave me a bit of a pause. Ninjas..okay...but baseball? Baseball is slowly becoming popular amongst youths here, but let's face it, it is not that common in Britain, so I was a bit unsure on whether my nonsporty son would even be interested. He however insisted that Charlie Brown and the gang play baseball so he knows about baseball and it is cool, so I gave in and let him order it. I am glad I did as it proved an instant hit, with him rushing off for an immediate read as soon as he retrieved it from the Amazon box. He sat engrossed in it for a full two hours before we managed to coax him away to eat!
At 200 pages, it is not a short comic book, nor too overly long. It is divided up into chapters, each with a mini story arc that keeps up the character development and story pace moving nicely along. The pictures are well drawn, but not as detailed as the graphic art aimed at a more adult audience. Mainly simple lines with basic shadings, nothing as fancy as fully rendered background scenery in every frame or lots of tone. The art focuses on the characters and their immediate surrounds, showing only what needs to be seen, with the dialogue firmly establishing what the reader is looking at. Now, recall I said that in Japan, these are aimed at kids aged 6 and up. I have to tell you here, that in Japan, they do not "dumb down" written materials. So things are written as they would normally be said, without the short early reader sentences most English speaking children would expect. This means that due to this being faithfully translated, a child of 6 who is still mastering the Oxford Reading Tree is going to struggle. The English vocabulary is more for the average8-10 bracket unless your child is an accomplished reader. Luckily, mine is, it is just blocks of text with few pictures that have made him hesitate.
The plot is quite a simple one. A young boy named Kyuma and his faithful dog Inui live in the mountains, where Kyuma trains hard every day in order to master the ninja arts. The day comes for him to seek his master, whereupon he encounters a boy who looking for new players for a baseball team. Not comprehending modern life nor knowing anything about what baseball is, Kyuma mistakenly believes that the boy is asking him to come train in some new ninja art and defend his clan. The storyline then follows Kyuma and the other players as Kyuma struggles to adapt to modern life, make friends, and learn to play baseball. It is very much a fish out of water story, with plenty of humour to be had, but with little bits of morality sneaking in. It would be far too easy for the other children to make fun of Kyuma, or take advantage of him, and along the way, Kyuma learns not only about friendship, but teaches the children about duty, respect, the value of kindness, and loyalty.
He has had this book just over a month now and has read and reread it cover to cover. The sequel is only available as a pre-order at this time, and I must say he is eagerly awaiting its availability and subsequent delivery. While he waits though, I have noted that the illustrated Wind in the Willows has disappeared off the shelf, to be found in his hands. This book has bridged the gap nicely between picture book and children's prose novels, giving him more incentive to look beyond the detailed illustrations found in young people's beginner books and try out the text. It seems that he has found pleasure in the reading itself at last. For that alone, this manga hits a home run.