On November 2, 2021, I hosted a panel for New York City Department of Education’s Beyond Access Forum. This virtual conference is presented by the New York City School Library System, the Division of Instructional and Information Technology, the Division of Multilingual Learners, Tech & Learning, and the Division of Specialized Instruction and Student Support. The Beyond Access Forum is all about collaboration across departments. The panel I hosted was Manga for Middle Grade! This panel allowed three outstanding creators of middle-grade graphic novels and manga to connect directly with educators in New York City.
The creators were Misako Rocks!, Svetlana Chmakova, and Wendy Xu. In this panel, we were able to discuss their motivations for writing middle-grade stories, their aesthetic inspirations, and what they recommend to young people considering a career in their field.
Misako Rocks! was inspired by her students to create Bounce Back. Bounce Back is a forthcoming manga about a young girl named Lilico who immigrates from Japan to find herself dealing with American middle school in Brooklyn. Svetlana Chmakova spoke about how she came to write her Berrybrook Middle School series through library visits during the success of her first series Dramacon. Furthermore, she talked about how parents asking for books for younger readers opened her up to the possibilities of creating for that level. She also talked about writing for “the little Svetlana.” Wendy Xu talked about how Tidesong was responding to the thoughts around what it was like to be twelve and told to make a decision about one’s life at that age. Additionally, she remarked that she was contemplating how the adults in young people’s lives try to push them in one direction or another.
As Wendy Xu says, “There’s something special about that age. And I don’t think you realize how special it is until you look back on it.”
Why Connecting Teachers to Creators Is Valuable
The purpose of the panel was to bring these particular creators to the attention of our educators and librarians in New York City. Their stories so powerfully utilize the visual medium of comics to work through the socio-emotional needs of our students. The connective thread between the stories told by these creators is the experiences of young people responding to their world. Also, as a school librarian, I want to connect classroom teachers with these stories. The Beyond Access Forum allowed me to spotlight very necessary titles for our young people. As a result, hopefully classroom teachers can envision making space for these titles in their classrooms.
I want teachers to feel the excitement that I experience when students encounter something they love in the library. When stories have authentic connections, the excitement is natural.
What is valuable is for teachers and librarians to understand that visual elements are just as important as the words. Visual literacy is a vital literacy. Valuing the contributions that mangaka, cartoonists, and illustrators make to a work is key. Additionally, teaching the visuals is just as important as teaching the story.
Building a Middle Grade Manga Collection
Librarians often ask how to build a manga collection for middle grades. While it’s easy to give a list of titles that I think will work, for students in that age range, what works best is authenticity. Stories that deal in emotion, relationships, and have beautiful illustrations will grab students. Ultimately, you know your students best and can make the best collection development decisions.