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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more At Length with . . .
Editor’s note: Françoise
Mouly, the New Yorker’s art editor, is also an acclaimed comics editor and publisher, having created (with her husband, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer-cartoonist Art Spiegelman) both the 1980s comics anthology RAW and the youth-focused 2000s comics anthologies Little Lit. Stephanie Zvirin spoke with Mouly about her newest venture, the early-reader comics imprint TOON Books, in the May 2008 issue of Book Links. Given TOON’s growing popularity, we thought we’d share their full conversation with readers of Booklist Online.
BKL: This venture is very different from Little Lit, which was for older children; what made you decide to tackle such a young audience this time?
MOULY: All my life I have been involved with editing and publishing comics, and years ago, I published RAW, a magazine that was extremely influential in making the case that comics are not just for kids. All along, I thought of reading as one of the most pleasurable activities around, and it was with a shock that I realized, when my own kids reached the age of six, that reading is only fun once you get on the other side of that massive literacy barrier. Somehow, learning to read was much easier for my daughter than for my son: both bright kids, both growing up surrounded by books and comics. But comics saved the day for our family: my husband, Art Spiegelman, sacrificed his comic-book collection to fatherhood, and since I speak French to my kids, I loaded up on all the French kids’ comics I could find. When we emerged from nearly a year of nightly reading, I thought, “This has been far too pleasurable to keep it to ourselves; we’ve got to get more kids’ comics published here in the U.S.!”
My initial impulse, back in 1998, was to go back to self-publishing and launch a new collection, but in practical terms, I already had a lot on my plate: two young children, a full-time husband, and I was—still am—the art editor of the New Yorker. So the more practical route was to do an anthology collection, similar in a way to what we had done with RAW. We found a wonderful editor at HarperCollins, Joanna Cotler, and put out three Little Lit large hardcover anthologies featuring Maurice Sendak, Barbara McClintock, Ian Falconer, Jules Feiffer, Harry Bliss, Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman, Chris Ware, and many others.
Once we had published stories by the best children’s-book artists and cartoonists, and since, by then, our kids had reached adolescence, I decided to take on what I saw as the ultimate challenge and bring to the world something that had never been done before: a collection of high-quality comics specially aimed at early readers—hence the TOON Books.
BKL: There are picture books on the market that employ sequential storytelling conventions, but you seem to be positioning your books against what librarians and teachers call easy readers; that term usually suggests controlled vocabulary and word counts. Please explain if or how that’s a part of TOON’s strategy.
MOULY: There are very good reasons why easy readers have controlled vocabulary and word counts. When the child is starting to read, she can make out only a few words, some from the basic rules of phonics, others learned by sight. Teachers and librarians accomplish a miraculous high-wire act when they keep finding just the right book for any one kid at any one stage. The book can’t be too easy—the child would get bored—and it can’t be too hard—he or she would get discouraged. For the TOON Books, I worked very closely with teachers and educators on one hand, artists and authors on the other, from the very conception of the book and through the whole editing process. We kept refining the stories, replacing hard words with others easier to make out, and reworking the visual storytelling so that it would provide a vivid and exciting reading experience, even and maybe especially for a child with a limited reading vocabulary and fluency.
BKL: Would you call TOON Books comics? If so, what do you say to educational conservatives who insist comics aren’t literature?
MOULY: I’d love to get those educational conservatives into the room with us when we go to the schools to read our TOON Books with first- and second-graders. The kids are well behaved and eager when we start—you know, kids that age actually love reading hour! There are two or three kids on either side of me, and I start directing them to take turns, pointing to each balloon. Within a page or two, the kids are piled on top of the book, reading aloud together and actually doing the voices! They are breathing through the mechanics of reading and making the story happen. They pause, comment, find the relations to their life—“I have that toy!”—go back, help each other, anticipate what may happen next—“inference”—say the teachers, empathize with the characters, and completely, fully inhabit the story. That’s reading, and that’s what literature can do for you, transport you into a world of your own imagination.
I would even argue that comics have a unique ability to draw young readers into a story through the drawings. As one of our advisors, Barbara Tversky, professor of psychology at Stanford University, explains: “Comics use a broad range of sophisticated devices for communication. Comics are more than just illustrated books, but rather make use of a multimodal language that blends words, facial expressions, panel-to-panel progression, sound effects, and more to engage readers in a compelling narrative.” We live in an increasingly visual world; it’s time to redefine literacy to include visual literacy, which is much more intuitive for children. The beauty of comics is that it gets kids to love books, printed objects; as my husband, Art Spiegelman, says: “Comics are a gateway drug to literature.”
BKL: Why do you think that educators and librarians, some of whom worked very hard years ago to drive comics underground, will accept them in their classrooms now? What’s changed?
MOULY: Today’s “graphic novels”—a euphemism to pacify the very same educational conservatives—are in museums, bookstores, libraries, and they win major book awards. The battle that Art and I fought 30 years ago, for comics to be taken seriously, seems to have been won. It’s fair to say that the culture now accepts that comics are a medium, not a subgenre, that they are on par with film or literature, and therefore can produce true works of art and/or literature. But comics are also a lot of fun, so, for me, the next frontier has to be to make sure that comics do not become ghettoized as just for college students and art museums.
Certainly, librarians, or maybe just an avant-garde subset of librarians, have been ahead of the curve in incorporating comics into their collections. Two things seem to attract people, especially young people, into libraries nowadays: Internet access and comics (or “graphic novels” if you prefer). One of my favorite reviews for Little Lit was “This book will circulate!” in School Library Journal. Librarians are finely attuned to what their customers really like, as opposed to what they should like. Our first public event for the TOON Books was a standing-room-only reception at the ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia, and the response couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.
BKL: I heard that you have tested TOON in the classroom and that the books have been adopted in a pilot project in Maryland. Have you had feedback yet?
MOULY: Yes, considering the decade-old prejudices against comics, and the view you mentioned earlier that comics can only be junk, I am amazed by the speed at which the ground is shifting. In 2005 Dr. Nancy Grasmik, the Maryland state superintendent of schools, launched a “Comics in the Classroom” initiative and very readily embraced the TOON Books. They are using our books in kindergarten, first and second grades, as well as in some pre-K programs—comics are wonderful to read aloud to younger children, who love following the pictures. The response from the principals and the teachers in Maryland has been terrific; we’ll post lesson plans that the teachers are providing on our Web site (www.toon-books.com). I should add, though, that it has never been our or their goal to replace regular books with comics and that we are only talking here, of course, of supplementing the reading material available in schools. Another extremely encouraging development for us is that Renaissance Learning has adopted the TOON Books in their accelerated-reader program, used in over 60 percent of schools in the U.S. That means that children will be able to put the TOON Books—which, yes, indeed, I know, are comic books—on their reading lists. Once again, I couldn’t be more pleased. This time around, it seems that Art and I were only seconds ahead of our time. There’s a definite appetite, in some corners of the big wide world, for reading material that kids can love, and though it makes sense if you slow down to think about it, it’s truly heartwarming. In general, I’d say that what I have learned in the past few years from teachers, librarians, and educators has been the greatest gift of all. Their dedication, especially in the face of most of society’s neglect and indifference, is uncanny. They are my heroes!
BKL: I noticed that the creators of the first three books come from different backgrounds: Cammuso and Lynch are known for comics; Rosenstiehl and Hayes for picture books. I know your husband is producing a TOON Book [Jack and the Box] for your fall list. What are you looking for in the creators you select for your list?
MOULY: My first and most important goal is to find a good children’s book story, and that’s surprisingly rare. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that many books for children are produced with lots of good intentions but little creativity. Fortunately for me, my whole professional life has been devoted to working with artists, and specifically with artists who are also authors. That’s true at the New Yorker, where the artists I work with are not merely “illustrating” a writer’s text but coming up with their own ideas. That was true when we did RAW, and again when we did Little Lit. We are privileged in that some of the best narrative artists around have joined forces with us for the TOON Books adventure. And, to answer your question, their backgrounds are more similar than it may seem: Geoffrey Hayes is indeed a renowned children’s book artist, but he always wanted to do comics, which he couldn’t do in the “picture-book” world. Agnès Rosenstiehl, one of France’s premier author of picture books, is a cartoonist, and most of her 100-plus books are done as comic strips. Jay Lynch, Frank Cammuso, my husband, Art Spiegelman, Dean Haspiel, and Eleanor Davis, who we’ll publish in the fall , would all be happy enough to be called cartoonists, even if they have many other accomplishments to their names.
BKL: You are the art director for the New Yorker, but I understand you have experience in children’s book publishing as well. Did that, in any way, inform your approach to TOON?
MOULY: Actually my title at the New Yorker—I know it’s quirky, but then it is the New Yorker after all—is art editor (the artists are “contributors,” on the same level as the writers). In many instances, when we want to do a cover relating to a news event, we are up against all sorts of media organizations throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars at the same photos, and meanwhile we get to experience the impact that a simple drawing on the cover of a weekly magazine can have. Drawing is magical, because in this age, where we are awash in thousands of pictures every day, individual expression is magical. Conversely, the fact that my background is in self-publishing is just as essential. I founded my small press, RAW Books & Graphics, in 1977, while Little Lit and the TOON Books are published by RAW Junior, founded in 1998. With self-publishing, I learned early on that you can have an idea and make it happen.
BKL: I gather you are publishing TOON yourself, rather than with an established children’s trade-book publisher (as, I think, you did with Little Lit). What was your thinking behind this move?
MOULY: No matter how far up I have moved into the world—and I’ll grant you that the top of the Condé Nast tower is pretty high up—I haven’t been able to unlearn the thrill of doing everything myself; it’s too exciting! I started out years ago in architecture and was frustrated; the scale of the printed object and of its means of production works for me—I bought a printing press and learned to operate it when I first started. When I started out to do the TOON Books, I talked to many publishers besides HarperCollins and Penguin—with whom we did Big Fat Little Lit in 2006—but some were reluctant to launch books in a category that did not exist; others wanted to pick and choose among the books; others still wanted to add their own level of editing or have our books conform to their existing format or design. Meanwhile, I had a clear idea of what the line of books should be so I finally decided that, as I have done many times before, I should just do it. Because seeing is believing, and ultimately there is no better way to test my ideas than to put the books in the hands of children. It’s been backbreaking work—ah, the good old days when I only had two small children and a full-time job—but I have learned so much over the past few years, and the books are such gems, that I have absolutely no regrets. Being a small—minuscule may be a better word—publisher also has its advantages: the few people who are working with me are wholeheartedly devoted and give it their all; and we have been able to turn on a dime and adapt to everything that has been thrown our way in a way a big corporation couldn’t have.
BKL: Were there particular children’s books or authors who influenced your vision of TOON Books?
MOULY: For me the gold standard is American children’s book publishing of the 1940s and 1950s, which saw the emergence of authors like Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak, Crockett Johnson, and so many others. These were talented artists and authors who were given free rein, and each book was highly original. The result was a vibrant milieu of artists, really engaged with what they were doing, and we’re still reading those books; they have become today’s classics. I’ve tried to create a similar atmosphere for the artists who are doing TOON Books.
BKL: Where do you think TOON is headed in the next, say, three years?
MOULY: We’re publishing 6 books a year, so, simple math, in three years I see us with a line of 18 TOON Books. Some of these books I know already, because they are already in the works, but I’m very eager to see the others come to life. One of the secrets I have learned over the years is that artists thrive on jealousy. When they see a great work by someone they admire, they are devastated, but not for long. They bounce right back and immediately start muttering, “I’ll show him [or her].” Then they lock themselves in a room, and new masterpieces are born, which start the cycle all over again. That’s what happened in the 1940s and 1950s in children’s books; that’s happened with RAW, Little Lit, and on the cover of the New Yorker. So I can’t wait to see it happen again, especially since all these masterpieces will end up as more comic books in the hands of kids!
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