In choosing titles this month, I really wanted to focus on the concept of family. With Thanksgiving and the holiday season coming up, it feels like our thoughts naturally turn to those we’re connected to this time of year. I’m also going to add in some age-appropriate manga this month, as well, because there are a few titles that not only support the theme well, but also are nice for those readers who prefer series to standalone titles.
Since we’re coming off Halloween, I’m going to start with one of my favorite manga titles, Natsume’s Book of Friends. It falls under the category of shojo manga, which is usually for girls, but it somewhat defies the classification because it doesn’t feature a romance, which tends to be one of the markers of the genre. Instead, this is an episodic story about a boy who can see spirits.
Natsume is an orphan who has been passed around from family member to family member because they think he’s strange. In reality, he can see spirits (referred to as yokai), a gift he inherited from his grandmother, along with her Book of Friends. She was also a loaner, and to combat her mixed feelings towards people she would trap the names of yokai in her book. Uncomfortable with possessing such an object, Natsume makes it his mission to release as many names as possible – though sometimes the yokai would rather hunt him, instead.
What makes this title really interesting is that Natsume has just been taken in by distant relatives at the start of the series, and they’re determined to help him feel wanted. They’re unaware of his gift and don’t understand him at times, but they really try. In turn, Natsume wants to please his foster parents and does his best to protect him from the dangers they’re unaware of. As the story goes on, he also makes friends with various yokai and other humans – including kids at school and an actor/exorcist. All of them emphasize what it means to be connected to other beings, and under each story is the realization that at some point Natsume may have to choose who he aligns with. It’s a very autumnal feeling story, perfect for November. Since it’s episodic, you can really pick up any volume and start – the author does a wonderful job of sinking you into the story and catching you up with each chapter. As things progress, it becomes a little more of an arc, but I don’t think you’d really miss too much picking up at any point. What I like is that this isn’t so much a story about humans vs spirits, but of a boy learning about the worlds around him and figuring out where he belongs and how he relates to other people (and yokai). I’m also a huge fan of Nyanko-sensei aka Marada, the yokai who, for all intents and purposes, is stuck in the form of a lucky cat. He provides some amazing comic relief, and slowly grows into a friend for Natsume.
I also have to mention the art – it’s just gorgeous. There’s something phenomenally delicate and heart-breaking in some of the illustrations, and they really fit the tone of the stories. Like the content, the pictures bounce from slightly exaggerated caricatures to some truly beautiful scenes.
As a whole, this manga also does a great job of introducing readers to Japanese folklore and shows insight as to how our cultures and societies are different (but not all that different). It’s a great way for young readers to connect to things outside of themselves while still feeling a sense of the familiar. Some of the chapters are fun, some are silly, some are sad, and some will make you feel multiple things at once. I’d definitely recommend this for older elementary school and above (it would likely depend on reading level and how quickly they can adjust to the right to left format), and it’s a great read for adults, too. Currently it’s over 20 volumes, so there’s plenty to entertain yourself with. This is definitely one to check out.
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