What do a high school volleyball team made up of crows, a super flexible pirate, and a not-so-psychic con man have in common? For manga enthusiasts, the answer may be—ahem—One Piece of cake. And whether they're newcomers to the format or bonafide otaku, readers who didn't already get that joke are sure to after flipping through Crunchyroll senior features editor Briana Lawrence’s new book, The Essential Manga Guide: 50 Series Every Manga Fan Should Know, which hit shelves on June 11.

The guide covers 50 series across various genres, and explores the ever-growing prominence of manga by surveying some of the format’s all-time top titles. Lawrence provides both comics history and personal anecdotes as she analyzes the diverse narratives of the included series foregrounded in analyses of gender and sexual identity, racial inclusivity, and body positivity.

“People just don't realize it,” said Lawrence. “There's so many early stories [in manga] talking about these things that make a huge impact in the world. And there are all these stories that are written by queer people, and they don't know.”

Running Press initially approached Lawrence with the idea for the book after including two of her essays, on the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Revolutionary Girl Utena, in one of its previous titles, The Essential Anime Guide: 50 Iconic Films, Standout Series, and Cult Masterpieces. Lawrence was excited when asked, but knew that one of her biggest obstacles would be picking which manga to write about. “I was like, ‘this is gonna be easy—50 is so many,’” Lawrence recalled. “Then I started making a list, and I was like, ‘...oh, no.’”

Faced with the massive task of deciding what to include, Lawrence chose to introduce readers to a wide range of titles that represented the sheer variety of manga available. “I was trying to pick stuff that shows that manga has a lot of options,” she said. “Because even if manga is super popular now, there are still people who assume that manga is just one thing.” To do that, she looked first at her own history with the medium: “I thought it would be fun to go back as far back as I can remember, which would be Dragon Ball. Then I wanted to go a little bit further.”

But with new titles being frequently released, Lawrence had to part with the idea of including entries on some titles she wished could have had more limelight, citing such series as She Loves to Cook and She Loves to Eat, Is Love The Answer?, A Sign of Affection, and Wind Breaker as examples. “While I was writing, other stuff was being released, so I would start reading it and I would really want to talk about it, but it would be too late” to include it, she said. To ensure that as many series as possible got a nod, she decided to include recommendations for titles similar to the 50 she highlighted at length in the book.

Another obstacle, Lawrence said, was the act of writing for an audience with no prior knowledge of manga—and having to carefully avoid mentioning any spoilers. “Britny Perilli, my editor, was very helpful, because she was like, ‘Write this as if you're talking to someone who doesn’t know what manga is,’” recalled Lawrence. Her essay on Chainsaw Man, she noted, went through “a couple revisions, because I spoiled a bunch of stuff. But these were the parts that hit me. How do you not spoil something but talk about it in a way that the audience will still find captivating?” (Including the right illustrations, on the other hand, was a breeze, Lawrence said: “The publisher was like, ‘Just tell us your ideas of what you would like to see, and we'll handle the rest.’”)

When thinking of how to present an overview of manga to a broad swath of readers, Lawrence looked back to her own childhood, during which, she said, there weren’t a lot of stories in which she felt herself fully represented. “I want this to be a book where people can see that their stories are out there—where they are seen and heard,” she said. “I feel like my whole life, I’ve been looking for a story of, ‘That's me.’ And that's not always easy when you’re a black woman. But in anime and manga, I've always seen me somewhere. Even if it wasn’t exact. It's not a black character, but I relate to what they’re going through. I understand what they're feeling.”

Relatedly, Lawrence hopes that her guide will help readers be more open to learning about communities outside of their own. She pointed to The Bride was a Boy, a manga autobiography by Chii, a trans woman author, as an example. In one chapter, Lawrence said, “she describes everything she went through to change her name. And it is very long, because the process is just so long and ridiculous. I'm not trans. I will never understand the experience. But I understand being frustrated with this thing you're trying to get to say, ‘this is me,’ and getting all these roadblocks.” Lawrence added that she hopes “people look at the book and think, ‘I didn't know that story was out there,’ or ‘I can relate to that or relate to some form of that’”—perhaps especially if they're not from the community being represented.

Looking forward, Lawrence is continuing to work on her middle grade series Fantasy Pin World, among other projects, including a magical girl manga series called magnifiqueNOIR and another series, Gamer Girls, cowritten with Andrea Towers and illustrated by Alexis Jauregui. And to stay up to date on a category that shows no signs of slowing down, she’s always reading more manga.

“I feel like manga is always changing—whatever the topic of conversation is, that's what manga ends up doing,” says Lawrence. “Lately, I feel like a lot of it's going back and telling stories we didn't get.”