I admit it. I’m a snob when it comes to what is and isn’t literature. The stack of books I take to the beach isn’t, while the collection of aging hard-backs in my bookcase undeniably is, its spines bearing the names of Wordsworth, Keats, Trevor, Yeats, Joyce et al – for all intents and purposes, the literary canon. So it was with some cynicism that I read an article in the Harvard Education Letter this morning.

By Michael Bitz, founder of the Comic Book Project, “Manga Is My Life,” left me gobsmacked. Comic books as literature? The very thought. But these are not the comics of my youth, of the Wonder Woman or Superman variety. Not even close. These manga, Japanese comic books, with their stylized artwork, their honorifics (my 11 year old just explained to me the importance of adding “-san,” “-sama,” “-dono,” the suffixes that indicate relationship or social status in Japanese society.) I was every bit as impressed had she provided an explanation of the stratification of groups and individuals in Shakespeare’s Othello.

Back to Mr. Bitz. Turns out his project has engaged over 50,000 kids since 2001, and they have created thousands of comics. Thousands. All the while, these writers are improving their word choice and syntax, crafting whimsical stories as they develop what is most difficult to teach – ‘voice.’ Typically, they give themselves Japanese nicknames and even include Japanese words and phrases in their narratives. Really. Well, really. A quick consultation with my resident expert reveals that indeed this is the case. With a sigh and a roll of the eyes she informs me that her manga name is Sasori, and her two best friends are Rikku and Tomoko. The plot thickens.
My daughter’s devotion to the craft is evident in the pages and pages of what I had, until now, dismissed as elaborate doodling. As I read her most recent story – starting on the back page – I learned some time ago that the bookbinding was not wrong; translated manga reads backwards – I can see quite clearly how her everyday vicissitudes have been transformed into manga narratives. Authentic writing with plot and theme and all the elements of literature that students are expected to grasp.
So, I’m on something of a mission today. For further information, I’m going to take a virtual tour of the Comic Book Project, Cartoon Studies, and Teaching Comics, and, to my daughter’s delight, on the shelves of my pretentious bookcase, I plan to make room for manga.