Udon Entertainment, an Ontario-based manga studio that produces manga adaptations of Capcom's popular Street Fighter video game, is launching Udon Kids Manga, a line of licensed Japanese comics titles aimed at children ages seven and up, beginning with four titles in April 2009. Udon Kids Manga will be distributed to the trade by Diamond Book Distributors, and Udon plans to promote the line at the American Library Association, International Reading Association and the American Association of School Libraries conferences.

“There are only a few options for kids' manga,” said Erik Ko, chief of operations at Udon, who explained that most of the manga aimed at young U.S. readers are part of large franchises, like Pokémon. Ko described the four titles Udon plans to release as original, story-driven manga, without anime tie-ins, that “focus on friendship and moral values.” All four titles have been licensed from Japanese publisher Poplar.

Janna Morishima, director of DBD's Diamond Kids unit, described Poplar as “similar to Scholastic”—a large publisher focused on the children's book market.

The four titles are The Big Adventures of Majoko, the story of a friendship between a witch and a human girl, and Ninja Baseball Kyuma, about a lone ninja who learns to play as a member of a baseball team, both due in April. Following in May and June are Fairy Idol Kanon, about fairies who compete in singing contests, and Swan in Space, a comical space adventure.

Educating parents and teachers about manga and dispelling stereotypes about the category is the biggest challenge for publishers. Udon plans to publish a pamphlet on the history of manga, its ubiquity in Japan and its universal acceptance as reading material. Udon will also create a Web site for the line, mangaforkids.com; the company will keep the kids' Web site separate from the parent company's site, with its more adult content.

Ko said he combed through Poplar's catalogue to find the right manga for U.S. kids and emphasized that he's out to introduce a new generation of American kids to manga. “Manga is becoming like native U.S.comics,” he explained. “The original audience is getting older and we need to cultivate new readers.”

Morishima agreed, noting a common complaint among librarians is “the lack of [manga] titles for this age group. We want to make sure that the traditional children's book market knows that there are good manga titles and how much potential there is in comics for kids.”