VIZ Media may be best known for its teen manga like Naruto and Bleach, but the publishing company has also branched out into Japanese graphic novels for both children and adults. Their books for young readers are released under the imprint VIZ Kids. This summer, in addition to their usual children’s manga, the company is trying something different with the launch of Mameshiba.

Mameshiba are characters that were invented in Japan by Dentsu,” said Beth Kawasaki, senior editorial director. “Originally, the half-bean, half-dog characters were animated shorts to help fill air time during children’s programming blocks. But Mameshiba proved so popular that they almost immediately spawned more than $30 million in merchandise sales after one year.”

Kawasaki and others at VIZ liked the characters and began discussing the possibility of spawning a series of books. This July, two years after initial discussions, that series begins with Meet Mameshiba and Mameshiba: On the Loose!

VIZ Media hired its own talent for the writing and illustrating of the books, making them their first original graphic novels created just for the American market “Senior Editor Traci Todd was especially instrumental,” said Kawasaki. “She really ran with it and found fun, and funny, super talented artists Jorge Monlongo and Gemma Correll and writer James Turner.”

While the company declined to say how many books were being printed, and if there would be more or fewer copies than other books, Kawasaki did say it’s a “healthy print run.”

This is the first time VIZ has done anything quite like this—taking a Japanese idea and putting it into the hands of non-Japanese writers and illustrators is something unique. While staying mum on any other similar titles, the company said they wanted to do more things like this. Still, Kawasaki did say that the entire Mameshiba idea was seen as “a great opportunity in the kids graphic novel space to bring some new stories to market.”

While not exactly aimed at being educational per se, Kawasaki still believes Mameshiba could be helpful for young readers, especially those in the target range of seven to eleven. “It wasn’t designed with a particular learning curriculum in mind but I strongly believe that sequential art is an excellent tool for helping kids learn how to read and to understand narrative,” she said.

Besides the Mameshiba launch, VIZ Kids is sticking with more familiar names this summer, including proven sellers that are instantly recognizable for being tie-ins with television shows or video games, like Pokémon and The Legend of Zelda. Because these are already well-known outside of the books, Kawasaki says that these are the easiest sells. “We’re expanding our Pokémon offerings [this summer] with a new manga series, Pokémon Black and White, a Pokémon Travel Activity Kit, and the Pokémon Magnet Play Book,” Kawasaki said.

Their latest in the Taro series, Taro and the Carnival of Doom, is also being released. Taro is partially a graphic novel and partially a prose picture book in which a boy has a magic pencil he uses to create worlds— it’s been called “Harold and the Purple Crayon for older readers.” Its comedic element is meant to draw children in, but this one also offers a clear educational stimulus, with bonus puzzles and mazes included in the book.

Odds are Pokémon will have no problems finding an audience, and Taro has been around before, but Mameshiba isn’t expected to take off immediately because most Americans are unfamiliar with the franchise.

“For Mameshiba, it’s a slower build, but the cool thing about that is that we’re part of the brand’s initial launch in North America, which is a great position to be in,” said Kawasaki. “We have a lot of fun brainstorming ideas around the office.”