No Starch Press Manga Guides Make Science Fun

Image courtesy No Starch Press

Have you ever read a textbook cover to cover? I’m in grad school. I’ve had to do it more than once. It usually requires massive amounts of caffeine and re-reading a lot of pages. Well, there’s some good news. No Starch Press has The Manga Guide series on textbook topics, such as statistics, electricity, and molecular biology. The manga books are written by Japanese subject matter experts. They  have been translated to English and (thankfully) rearranged to read from left to right.  Update: I’m told the Japanese originals were left to right, so no rearranging was necessary.

I have three sample use cases in my house, so No StarchPress provided me with three sample books. First is my 11-year-old daughter. She volunteered to read The Manga Guide to Electricity. Next up is my husband, who is studying for his GRE and has discovered that he’s forgotten everything he ever learned in high school math. He read The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra. I’m taking a graduate class in quantitative analysis this semester, so my book was The Manga Guide to Statistics.

All three of these books turn out to be very similar in plot. Character A is struggling with a topic and put into a situation that requires them to learn the subject matter from Character B. It doesn’t matter if they were sent from an alternative dimension with advanced electrical capabilities or trying to get closer to a school crush, the subject matter takes center stage in all of these books. Each goes through a series of illustrated examples that teach the concepts, and the struggling learner interrupts with lots of questions.

I thought that the idea would end up being so hokey that it would disguise the learning material, but I was drawn in to what turned out to be fairly cute stories within a couple of pages. My husband had several GRE prep books, Khan Academy, and a course through Udacity, but it ended up being manga that taught him the most, probably because of the struggling-learner-with-lots-of-questions approach.

I found The Manga Guide to Statistics to be surprisingly good as well. There was the manga story line, of course, but the book also had lots of problems you could work out yourself. The instructions showed you how to do the computation in Excel. Thank goodness. I’m sure a lot of students appreciate learning about statistical concepts and research methods without learning any of the math, but I’m not one of them. Working out frequency distributions or standard deviations really helps me see what those vocabulary words mean in action. The silly and very Japanese examples (the mean price of ramen in an imaginary building with only ramen restaurants) were actually pretty fun.

Speaking of Japanese, that may be the one caveat for this series. The books are translated to English, but there are still illustrations with Japanese text (which may or may not have been mirrored to make the comic books read left to right – I can’t tell). There are lots of cultural references to Japan. That makes sense and is completely part of the charm if you’re a manga fan. However, my daughter struggled with some of these cultural differences as she read. Little things like knowing what “Yen” meant. She’s a Miyazaki fan and no stranger to manga, but she’s also an 11-year-old American. An older child is more likely to see the cultural differences as interesting instead of a barrier to comprehension.

Even with that caveat, this was a cute and smart series. I’d  recommend The Manga Guide to home-schoolers, summer break supplemental learning, college students trying to brush up on a topic, and anyone with a love of anime or manga that wants to learn more about a math or science topic. I’d say the age range starts around middle school, but pay attention to the subject matter.  The books are overall solidly written and make hard science topics entertaining



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Marziah Karch has written books on topics like Android and LEGO robotics. She is also writes for for money and GlitterSquid for fun. She lives in Portland, Oregon and still works a day job. Because she apparently has free time on top of all that, she is also a doctoral candidate researching the information behavior of independent game designers.