All books are available in English but actual covers may vary dependent on the publisher.
Writer and artist: Kiyohiko Azuma
What's it about?
A group of Japanese schoolgirls plus two of their teachers journey through three years of upper secondary school in Japan. Meet the girls:
Sakaki: Quiet, tall and prone to constant attack from the various cats and kittens which she finds so adorable.
Chiyo-chan: Child prodigy. Aged 10. Chan is an honorific used to express cuteness. It is often used for babies, young children and teenage girls. To address an elder or teacher using 'chan' would be quite rude.
Osaka: Not too bright, and spends the majority of her time spacing out (and obsessing with Chiyo's pigtails).
Tomo: Loud, enthusiastic and somewhat annoying.
Yomi: The most mature and balanced of the lot.
Kaorin: A shy and reserved girl with a crush on Sakaki.
Kagura: Arrives in volume 2. Has a competitive streak a mile long, and is Sakaki's self appointed sporting rival.
We follow the girls through school life and see them compete at sports festivals, create cultural days, visit Chiyo's summer home, discuss bra sizes, diets, exams, hiccups, ramen noodles, the likelihood of kidnapping, cats and summer breaks.
What's good about it?
You get fully immersed into the world of the girls and come away with a living breathing image of them in your head, complete with personality quirks, likes, dislikes and odd ideas. I don't think I have ever read a book or comic with such a well rounded and realistic portrayal of the dynamics within such a friendship group.
Those expecting a traditional romance story will be surprised as this is a book about an all female world where boys are completely unimportant, barely acknowledged by any of the main characters. There is however a yuri (lesbian) subplot. Readers may have preconceptions about what manga is like when it comes to schoolgirls and lesbians. Cast those ideas aside because I guarantee you they will not apply. There are no strip scenes, no sex, no fan service up skirt shots and strictly no objectifying. The romance subplot is innocent, naive and 100% clean. How refreshing.
It is very, very funny. Oftentimes there are jokes that will make you laugh out loud, possibly even cackle. Other times you'll have a bemused grin on your face as you ponder what Tomo or Osaka were talking about. As the manga is mostly written in a strip format, you get a punchline at the end of every column. Some of the jokes are slapstick, some rely on puns, some are situational and some surreal.
Like the vast majority of manga available now, the comic is presented in the original Japanese format. So the strips are displayed vertically. The speech bubbles are read right to left, not left to right, and the book is read from the back to the front. This may sound confusing but for new manga readers the strip format is probably one of the easiest places to start. Presenting the comic in the original format also complements the content of the book and the examples of Japanese culture and history that you will learn about. The translation notes at the back of volume 3 and 4 explain particular puns and cultural references that are not immediately obvious.
What's bad about it?
I feel that the first volume is the weakest of the 4, so I would urge you to either skim through volume 1 before purchasing, or consider reading volume 2 first. You won't miss anything by doing this, there are no spoilers as such and volume 1 will be appreciated far more once you've read later volumes. Alternatively you could try to purchase the omnibus edition, containing all 4 books.
Regarding the translation, on the whole it has been done very well but there are a few occasions where the humour gets lost, as the English phrases don't seem to have quite the same feeling to them. This is a common problem with any translated work, and is very difficult to fully resolve in any circumstance. However the translators have made a reasonable effort here, most notably in the final two volumes. These include a short glossary at the end of the book, discussing various cultural references which can be very useful to those readers not familiar with Japan.
Artwise, the main distinguishing features of the characters lies in their hair style and height. Usually this works well but on a few strips there may be confusion over which character is which. Having said that, the characterisation is so strong that when you've read the text you'll know who is in the panel.
What's the art like?
As I mentioned before, the comic is mostly laid out in strip format, like Western newspaper strips only vertical instead of horizontal. As such, there are particular artistic and story pacing conventions which will be familiar to the Western reader even if they are unused to manga.
The art itself is black and white, fairly simple and character focused. There is not a lot happening in the background. For example:
Omnibus edition - ISBN: 1413903649 Price: £18.99
Volume 1 - ISBN: Unable to find.
Volume 2 - ISBN: 1413900232
Volume 3 - ISBN: 1413900305
Volume 4 - ISBN: 1413900488
Amazon is proving not very useful when locating ISBNs and prices. As a guideline, I wouldn't expect to pay more than about £7.50 for a new copy.
For a guide on how to read those parts of the book which aren't in strip format, go here and scroll to the end of the post.
Azumanga Daioh has also been made into an anime (cartoon). There are 6 DVDs available which follow the manga's plotline fairly faithfully. Unlike the manga, the anime is in colour and adds a lot more to the lesbian romance, whilst still keeping it clean.