Light novels or ライトノベル (raito noberu) are a type of young adult novel from Japan that primarily target middle and high school students. In contrast to manga, which are graphic novels, light novels are prose novels that have key scenes illustrated in a manga style. In the past few years, thanks to the efforts of publishers such as J-Novel Club, Yen Press, and Seven Seas Entertainment, this format has begun to explode onto the animanga scene with full force.
A Brief History of Light Novels
Light novels feel incredibly new, but they are actually an evolution of pulp novels and have been around since the 1970s in Japan. Originally, light novels would be primarily published in magazines, similar to manga, but since the internet’s rise, most light novels start out as web novels.
Generally, when a light novel becomes popular online, it will get picked up for licensing and have an illustrator attached. These illustrations are in manga style, which typically set the character and style design for future manga and anime adaptations. Light novels are actually usually the beginning of the pop culture life cycle in Japan for many of the most popular stories.
In recent years, Western publishers have been making a push to import light novels. Notably, Yen Press has a dedicated imprint, Yen On, which also has an audiobook presence. The demand for light novels has been dramatically rising as fans of anime and manga recognize that these prose versions of their favorite stories often carry deeper character insights and scenes that don’t make it to the manga and anime adaptations. Also, certain series have light novels published as extensions to their stories that come after a manga has been published that provides this extended depth. An example of this is the series of Naruto light novels, which provides a deeper look at various characters and their motivations.
What Makes a Light Novel a Light Novel?
So, what sets these light novels apart? First, light novels are light because they’re short. They’re also written to be fast-paced and easy to read. They’re ideal reading for young people looking for entertainment while commuting or while winding down after studying or working. The publication schedule of these novels can be quite extreme. While a new book from Rick Riordan might come once every couple of years, a new book from a light novelist will come every couple of months. Notoriously, novelist Kazuma Kamachi wrote an incredible novel a month for twenty-four straight months.
This means that although these books are short, series can actually be quite long and can come out incredibly fast. In my experience, though, light novel readers love this element. They’re actually quite proud of how prolifically they read.
Light Novels in School Libraries
This leads us to why you should have light novels in your collection. These fast-paced reads with manga-style illustrations are the perfect partner to your manga collection. They serve a few different purposes:
- A bridge to sustainable prose literacy. While I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with reading solely graphic formats, there also is nothing wrong with expanding young people’s literary repertoires. And I won’t deny that I’ve used it to quell teachers who won’t budge on “no graphics for classroom reading” no matter how much I send research and logic to them. It appeases them, and the students genuinely enjoy reading them.
- Hi-Lo literature that doesn’t feel like it. The reality is that the writing style of light novels means they are written conversationally and at a fast pace. Page counts are fairly low. For me, an avid light novel reader with a fast reading speed, a light novel generally takes me about an hour to consume, usually because I pause to enjoy the artwork.
- They’re actually a lot of fun to read! If we’re going to build lifelong readers, then reading needs to be fun. Light novels are often incredibly funny, suspenseful, and have engaging romances. The balance of all of this varies. Some of them are gripping mysteries, some are uproarious sit-coms, and some are epic fantasies. The stakes can be quite high or low.
- The target audience is primarily masculine (although this is NOT a rule and doesn’t mean these are “boy books”). Most of what’s being licensed are light novels for teenage boys. Yes, that group of young people who often have difficulty finding books on our shelves and are ransacking your manga shelves at this very moment. These books often feature male-identifying protagonists who generally need to build social skills. Surprisingly, a lot of light novels have hidden SEL lessons.
But the Cover is Kind Of Racy!
I’m going to let you in on a secret. One that your patrons may not notice.
The covers of these books are usually the most “sexy” parts. You’ll open that book and find way more pages on how the magic system works or dialogue about defeating a demon lord than you will any sexiness. There are a few reasons for this. Primarily, it’s because the romance is often incredibly slow-burn so that the action can be fast-paced. You’re coming back to find out if the protagonist will ever realize that the cute elf girl who argues with him all of the time secretly likes him because the guy wiped out three bad guys in one scene in the last book. Most of the time, it takes a ton of volumes before there’s even a kiss scene. So, honestly, don’t sweat the covers. You’ve got way more steamy stuff in your fiction section if you’re at a high school.
Where Do I Put Them?!
So, here’s my advice, based on what I do. I shelve light novels separately, next to my manga section. I use the call number MAN FIC. This lets students know that they are separate from just manga.
This was a journey, mostly because when I started our library, light novels were still not really available in print. So, the few that I had were simply in our Fiction section. Then when we returned from the pandemic, I made a concentrated effort to build up light novels, so I gave them the MAN FIC label… and interfiled with manga.
This worked, but it also created some confusion. Students would get confused about whether they were picking up the manga or the light novel, and I didn’t want there to be frustration. When I got the big grant delivery, my library crew and I agreed the best solution was to separate the two formats but keep them close together.
Some Light Novels I Love
Here are some light novels that I really enjoy, and that I think you should get for your school library!
The Holy Grail of Eris by Kujira Tokiwa. Yen Press.
Middle school and up.
Publisher synopsis: As a viscount’s daughter, Constance Grail is an ordinary girl whose only notable trait is sincerity, leaving her with no real options when someone steals her fiance and falsely accuses her of petty theft at a ball. While Connie awaits her undeserved punishment, a ghost appears to offer a bargain. The spirit is none other than Scarlett Castiel, a noblewoman once praised for her beauty, lineage, and undeniable charisma—and executed some ten years earlier for her wicked deeds. When Connie accepts this proposal, she is possessed by the infamous spirit who instantly turns the tide on her tormenter, thus saving the hapless girl from her miserable fate. It’s never wise striking a deal without knowing exactly what you’ve committed to, though…or you might find yourself bound to a ghost dead set on revenge against her own enemies!
Quick Take: A delicious murder mystery, an earnest female lead, and so much intrigue! It also has a wonderful slow-burn romance with a tall and broody detective who can’t help but be intrigued by Connie as she haphazardly tries to help her new acquaintance figure out how she wound up dead!
86 by Asato Asato. Yen Press.
Middle School and up.
Publisher Synopsis: The Republic of San Magnolia has long been under attack from the neighboring Giadian Empire’s army of unmanned drones known as the Legion. After years of painstaking research, the Republic finally developed autonomous drones of their own, turning the one-sided struggle into a war without casualties-or at least, that’s what the government claims. In truth, there is no such thing as a bloodless war. Beyond the fortified walls protecting the eighty-five Republic territories lies the “nonexistent” Eighty-Sixth Sector. The young men and women of this forsaken land are branded the Eighty-Six and, stripped of their humanity, pilot the “unmanned” weapons into battle…
Quick Take: This series is seriously underrated! With gripping action scenes, questions of what makes a person truly human, and truly fantastic characters, 86 is the series I can’t stop recommending.
7th Time Loop: The Villainess Enjoys a Carefree Life Married to Her Worst Enemy! by Touko Amekawa. Seven Seas.
Middle School and Up.
Publisher Synopsis: If you think being reincarnated once is a big deal, try seven times. From lowly pharmacist to embattled knight, Rishe has lived many lives. This time around, she’s determined to live in the lap of luxury–but there’s just one catch. To make her extravagant dreams come true, she has to marry the prince who killed her in one of her previous lives! It’s going to take every one of the skills she’s honed over multiple lifetimes to accomplish this goal!
Quick Take: Villainess stories are fairly regular, but Rishe is barely a villainess. She’s an incredibly interesting character, and as the story progresses, you get the sense that there’s much more to her time looping and her connection to Arnold Hein (her killer in her last life) than even she knows after several lifetimes.
Looking for more light novel recommendations? Here’s a list!
Also, if you would like me to prioritize a review or topic, please fill out this survey: Manga & More Review Survey.