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Manga, Marie Antoinette, and my opened mind


I’ve always been a bit of a snob when it comes to comic books. They’re not real literature.


So when I was living in Tokyo with my husband and three young children, I was cynical when they started reading Japanese ‘manga’. Surely this was a waste of time I thought – we’re only here in the Japanese education system for a few years, they should be reading real books.


But one night a conversation at the dinner table proved me wrong. My then 8-year-old daughter suddenly burst into tears, sobbing. ‘They were really unfair to Marie Antoinette. She had kids you know! And they killed her!’.


Turns out, she’d been reading a manga at school about the French Revolution. Yes, she knew all about the injustice. The lack of bread. The cake. But to her mind, Marie Antoinette was a mother, and her children lost their mother.


I was amazed and impressed that I could have a detailed conversation with my 8-year-old about the rights and wrongs of the French Revolution. This led to other topics over the course of the next few years, and ever since.


Japanese diplomats saving thousands of Jewish refugees during the second world war. Indigenous Japanese Ainu women surviving discrimination and fighting for their rights. Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan’s incredible achievements against all the odds. Historic battles and brave Samurai.


Somehow the way my children responded to and absorbed these stories was different. It felt like they were in the stories too, empathising with the characters. Something about how this subject matter was handled and these books written, was different. Flipping through the pages of cute, big-eyed illustrations, I found many had been written by top experts in the field. At the back were pages of historical data, timelines and biographical information. Was this dumbing down? Was this trashy pulp fiction?


I started to wonder if one of the things I’ve always admired about Japanese friends and colleagues – their insatiable curiosity – starts here. Manga exist not only as stand-alone books, but seem to permeate and inform a whole attitude to learning. It really opened my eyes to new ways to nurture children’s curiosity, education, and empathy. My husband explained that even being familiar with the names and places, if nothing more, is considered enough to get them hooked.


Really? But what if they completely miss the point? Won’t my children think they know the story and never go back to it as an adult? It felt a bit like watching the movie instead of reading the book.


So I tried to suspend my habit of seeing the ‘cutification’ as catering to the lowest common denominator, and suppress my ‘high culture / low culture’ judgey-ness. I started reading children’s manga. I learned a lot that I was never taught at school. I began to enjoy being innocently curious side-by-side my children.


‘Isn’t it incredible that Clara Schuman, piano prodigy and famous 19th-century concert pianist, sued her father in order to marry composer Robert Schuman, and went on to have 8 children while touring the world?’


A few months after the Marie Antoinette conversation, the same daughter said she’d just read a manga about Anne Frank. Impressed, but slightly concerned about the heavy subject matter, I asked ‘what did you think?’. To which she replied, ‘I think she looked better with a fringe’ …


But before you judge, my daughter is now 11, and her favourite English book of all time?


‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank.

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