Can ‘edumanga’ save us from our educational malaise? The Manga Guide to Biochemistry – #bookreview

The Manga Guide to Biochemistry
By Masaharu Takemura and Office Sawa, with illustrations by Kikuyaro
(No Starch Press, paperback, list price $24.95)

Biology and chemistry were never my top subjects, and my chances of becoming a biochemist are less than zero now, in this universe.

But even an old dog like me can learn a few biochemistry tricks with the help of manga, the smart, refreshing Japanese comic book alternative to turgid textbooks.

Indeed, many American high school and college students may now need all the manga they can get to help stem our worrisome national decline in science and mathematics scores. 

Since 2008, No Starch Press has been translating into English and publishing a series of Manga Guides originally from Japan. These offer entertaining comic introductions to tough subjects such as calculus, physics, molecular biology, and relativity.

The approach is known as “educational manga” or “edumanga,” and many U.S. educators, reviewers and media outlets are praising it as a fresh hope for getting young students interested in tough subjects critical to America’s future.

This new volume from No Starch Press, The Manga Guide to Biochemistry,  dives into its tricky topics in a very engaging way. The comic’s young protagonist, a girl named Kumi, unlocks many of the secrets of healthy eating and, along the way, learns some of the key science of biochemistry. By going on and off fad diets, she begins to understand how the body metabolizes carbohydrates, lipids, and alcohol, and how mitochondria produce ATP, and how DNA is transcribed into RNA.

Kumi is helped in her quest by her brainy friend Nemoto, by Nemoto’s biochemistry professor, Dr. Kurosaka, and by Robocat, a friendly endoscopic robot.

(Trust me, when you are being endoscoped, you want everyone and everything to be friendly.)

No Starch Press publisher William Pollock has reported that the “easily digestible” manga comic format is proving popular not only with “college and high school students tired of dry textbooks” but also grabbing the attention of “younger readers interested in learning real math and science.”

Says Pollock:  “The Manga Guides are great supplements to college-level courses, but we’ve also heard from parents whose nine- and ten-year-olds learned statistics and physics from these books. The story and comics almost hide the fact that readers are actually gaining solid technical knowledge.”

Not many comic books have kid characters dealing with topics such as the hyperbola of the Michaelis-Menten equation or the sigmoid curve of an allosteric enzyme. And not many comic books can help you  understand (if you don’t already know) the metabolism of substances such as carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and alcohol.

Actually, it’s very hard to hide the biochemistry when brainy Nemoto is intoning: “And if just a base and a pentose bond (without a phosphate), the result is called a nucleoside.”

But that’s okay. As the book says: “Whether you’re an amateur scientist, a medical student, or just curious about how your body turns cupcakes into energy, The Manga Guide to Biochemistry is your guide to understanding the science of life.”

Or, at least, it’s your guide to appreciating a valiant effort to make biochemistry more exciting, challenging and  understandable to kids, young  adults — and even aging grownups who often avoided tough subjects in school and now want and need some understanding of what was missed.

Si Dunn