Manga Math Mysteries

Jumping on the manga bandwagon for educational purposes, Lerner Books’ Graphic Universe line has brought out a group of Manga Math Mysteries to teach kids in a style they’ll enjoy reading. The small hardcovers are sturdy yet reasonably sized for small hands.

The Lost Key: A Mystery With Whole Numbers cover
The Lost Key:
A Mystery With Whole Numbers
Buy this book

The two that I sampled both had a strong kung fu class component. (I already knew the math, but I still learned principles of this discipline.) In each volume, a group of kids who study the martial art together find something suspicious and need numbers to investigate. In the first book, a bully steals the key to the kung fu school, then steals and hides their equipment. The kids have to find it, then count it to make sure it’s all there.

I think “whole numbers” is a rotten concept to try and work into a story, because all your characters sound like idiots as they count out loud. There are no age ratings on the books, but according to the publisher, all are aimed at ages 9-12. In my opinion, though, the first book skews younger than the third. The kung fu lessons, at least, were informative, and the idea of figuring out the best way to respond to a bully helpful.

Typical of instructional works, the text carries most of the meaning here, with the illustrations just along for the ride. As I mentioned before, the need to include simple concepts of addition and subtraction means that characters don’t sound normal as they work counting into the dialogue. There’s also too much repetition, as the slots of the storage unit are shown over and over, and too much guessing and coincidence instead of logical mystery-solving. Plus, it would have been nice to have seen the miscreant have some sort of punishment for his theft instead of dealing with him off-screen in a throwaway sentence.

The Secret Ghost: A Mystery With Distance and Measurement cover
The Secret Ghost:
A Mystery With Distance and Measurement
Buy this book

The third book, The Secret Ghost, is much better. The distance and measurement concepts are worked into the story more naturally, as the kids figure out what’s making spooky sounds in a house they fear may be haunted. (It’s also good to see logic used to defeat superstition, with all the noises having reasonable explanations, even if one of them is a bit creepy.)

The kids measure their kung fu classroom for shelving; hear a folktale about Shaolin monks using volume estimates to solve the mystery of a haunted well; figure out the distance between a tree and a house to determine if the branches could scrape the window; and even find a hidden room by comparing dimensions! Not only is this educational without talking down to kids, it’s pretty entertaining. I also found it praiseworthy that all the families in this series are multi-racial without it ever being pointed out or dwelt upon.

All books are written by teacher Melinda Theilbar, with different artists (Tintin Pantoja for #1, Yuko Ota for #3) — but since they draw to model, you have to look hard to see the difference. The unusual, high list price of $29.27 is so that they can offer 25% off and get down to $21.95 for school and library purchasing. There are an additional two books in the series, The Hundred-Dollar Robber: A Mystery With Money, also illustrated by Tintin Pantoja, and The Kung Fu Puzzle: A Mystery With Time and Temperature, drawn by Der-shing Helmer. (Complimentary copies for this review were provided by the publisher.)


  1. Thank you for the review, both the praise and the criticism. I’m very happy to have found Melinda Thielbar just when we needed a math teacher to create this series, and very happy with how well the three artists worked together on the characters under Tintin Pantoja’s lead.

    I’d like to clarify that the first series of Manga Math Mysteries covers third grade concepts, so are intended for kids starting at ages 7 and 8, rather than 9-12. Therefore, the first book is intentionally very basic. But we’ll bear in mind the critique as the series continues.

    And, yes, Lerner’s library-bound books, with exceptionally tough binding (not just normal trade hardcover binding) do have that school/library pricing. Should the books come out in a paperback edition, they’ll be priced in line with our other paperback graphic novels.

  2. Thank you for the clarification about the age — I just took what Amazon said. It makes more sense for it to skew younger. I appreciate you coming by to add this information!

  3. Kids are really lucky, they have a chance to love math

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.