Monday, April 13, 2009

The Manga Guide to Electricity

When I reviewed The Manga Guide to Databases over two months ago, I wasn't sure I was going to review any of the other Manga books. I knew that No Starch was going to publish others, but the only ones I was aware of at the time dealt with statistics and calculus; not two of my favorite subjects. When the notice for The Manga Guide to Electricity hit my inbox though, I thought it looked like fun. I was right. While I wasn't originally sure what audience the Databases book was written for, this Electricity book is securely written for the high school audience, though I suppose even younger students would benefit. The heroine of our story is an average high school student named Rereko who lives in the city of Electopia; a city totally run by electricity. Apparently, it's a big deal if you fail your electricity final and you live in a city where electricity is the main product. That's just what happened to Rereko. Sentenced to that most dreaded of fates for most students, summer school, Rereko has just one more shot at passing the exam and graduating. Enter her tutor Hikaru, who uses innovative and imaginative methods (such as manga) to help our young student "get it". That's just the point of this book as well; to help students who might not otherwise be particularly interested in learning electricity (or at least not interested in the usual teaching texts) "get it" in a fun and playful manner. The book is formatted in the way I imagine the entire series is set up. The main "learning" text is presented as a typical manga comic book, and a summary section at the end of each chapter that is just plain text and diagrams. Let's imagine that you're taught a topic by a cartoon and then you're presented the same material in a more standard format to see if you really understand. This is just how I pictured the Databases book; as a text that teaches you the basics in manga format and prepares you to learn more on the topic from "non-manga" materials. The No Starch Manga series aside, you can't expect to learn everything in manga, can you? Actually, the book superficially reminded me of my own first experience "learning" about electricity. In my case it was from a Reddy Kilowatt comic book in the fourth grade (back in the days when dinosaurs ruled the Earth). I vaguely recall a school field trip to my local electric plant and getting a Reddy Kilowatt lapel pin (which has probably long been relegated to the bottom of a landfill somewhere). Our typical exposure to manga or anime in America, usually leads us to expect scantily clad, buxom women, spaceships, super powers, and explosions. When I published the Databases review on this blog, one of the comments I got was about the lack of "boobs" (the main characters seemed to be in elementary school in that book). Sorry. The older age group represented by the main character hasn't changed the presentation of material. No explosions, no super powers, no space ships, and no (apparent) breasts. In other words, nothing that would tremendously distract the audience from the topic at hand. Japanese manga is sometimes used as a way to educate, not only on factual topics, but on morality and ethics, particularly the value of cooperation and respecting others. You have to keep that sort of philosophy in mind when reading this book (since it was originally published for a Japanese audience). The book won't teach you to be an electrician or an electrical engineer, but it will ground you solidly in how electricity works, including it's creation, how it's influenced, and manipulated. Concepts of current, capacitance, potential, voltage, and so on, are all well taught, including the primary methods used to generate electricity in the world today. The result of this book may be enough to help the reader pass an exam similar to what Rereko faces, and possibly for a few, it might spawn enough curiosity to explore the topic further. Lest we forget, there's an actual storyline involved. OK, it's not an amazingly compelling storyline (no super powers or explosions, remember?), but Rereko still has to pass her final so she can graduate. During the process, she and "Sensei Hikaru" develop a friendship (and she discovers he's a lousy housekeeper). By the last page, we see the happy ending, and as Bogart says at the conclusion of Casablanca, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"...and a pretty good book.