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Review Chat: Toon Books

One sign of the growing interest in comics specifically for children is the new publisher Toon Books, which focuses on “high-quality comics designed for children ages four and up.” The books are designed to be both appropriate for younger children and readable by emerging readers. Two of us at Good Comics for Kids—Katherine Dacey and Snow Wildsmith—decided to look over the Toon Books line and discuss what we thought of them.

Kate: What do you think of the Toon Book concept?

Snow: I must confess, at first I was concerned about it. I wasn’t sure what they were thinking when they wanted to do comics for kids. I’ve just seen so many companies that want to do "all-ages" comics, but are just doing it for the money, not for the love of comics. I should have known better, though, with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly attached. They are certainly two people who love comics! How about you?

Kate: Agreed! I think the books’ packaging and presentation is a brilliant idea, since kids love to re-read their favorite books over and over again.

Snow: The packaging is part of what really impressed me. Durable, colorful, but not babyish, eye-catching.

Kate: The durable bindings really stand up to grubby little fingers, and the books are a great size–small enough for little hands to manage on their own, but big enough to read with an adult.

Snow: As a librarian, I love that the spines all look similar, so that the Toon Books titles are easy to spot on the shelf.

Kate: I think that the presentation also appeals a lot to parents, too. Folks who might be open-minded enough to think of Maus and Persepolis as "real" books, but aren’t necessarily on board with superhero comics.

Snow: What do you think about the three easiest titles being landscape rather than portrait like the others from Toon?

Kate: I think that’s a terrific way to help parents and kids figure out which books are appropriate for really young readers.

Snow: Let’s discuss those three first then, since they’re kind of a group. The three titles marked as "A first COMIC for brand-new readers!" are Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons by Agnes Rosenstiehl, Jack and the Box by Art Spiegelman, and Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith.

Kate: I have to ask–which of the three is your favorite?

Snow: Hands down my favorite is Little Mouse by Jeff Smith. I think it is hilarious!! I LOVE the ending, which I won’t give away. As a kid I would have ROARED with laughter over that one. How about you?

Kate: Again, I think we’re on the same page here. I thought Little Mouse had a great rhythm, building to the kind of punchline that a four or five-year-old would think was hysterically funny.

Snow: I also loved that the art was so oversized, making the mouse the center of each page.

Kate: That’s something Little Mouse has in common with the other two landscape titles. The characters are always front and center, making it very easy to "read" the page. Some kids’ comics are so busy; I’m not sure how a really young reader would make sense of them.

Snow: Do you feel that the text was something a beginning reader could handle on their own, though? I worry that it might be too much, what with the contractions and such.

Kate: I’ve wondered about that with all of the books in the Toon series, actually. I know that the editorial team consulted language development experts, and tailored the scripts accordingly. For the most part, I’d say that those consultations paid off–each story tends to emphasize a handful of vocabulary words, and many of the illustrations help reinforce the concept.

Snow: That’s good, I didn’t know that. I did feel that the language in Silly Lilly by Agnes Rosenstiehl was very accessible, especially combined with the pictures. Though at first I didn’t like that it had a kind of "flat" quality to the art, making it feel more like a picture book than a comic, if that makes sense. After a second read, though, I liked that you could see the detail of the paper Rosenstiehl used beneath her paints. That makes it seem more "handmade."

Kate: I’ve felt the same way about several other Toon Books, like Benny and Penny. The art in all of the books is very appealing, but sometimes seems more appropriate for a more traditional picture book. What did you think of Jack and the Box by Art Spiegelman?

Snow: Personally I thought Jack and the Box was CREEPY! It would have scared me as a kid!

Kate: I just found it disappointing. The structure is a lot like Little Mouse: a long build-up for a visual punchline. It just wasn’t as appealing. I didn’t like the color scheme or the principal character design.

Snow: You didn’t think that the clown in Jack in the Box was frightening?

Kate: I guess he was a little menacing.

Snow: Maybe I’m just a chicken. :-) I did think that the language in Jack and the Box was well done. Nice use of repetition, reinforcing the main words. Towards the end of Jack and the Box, it began to feel a little like a Dr. Seuss title, which I liked, though I’m not sure if it would work for kids or not.

Kate: Yes, I think Jack and the Box had the best script, from a language-acquisition standpoint. What about the books for older readers–which do you think is the most successful/appealing?

Snow: Of the older titles, my favorite and the one I think works best is Eleanor Davis’ Stinky. Great use of color, funny plot, good language choices, an all-together good story. Which one worked best in your opinion?

Kate: I really enjoyed Stinky too. Though there was a clear life lesson being imparted–don’t judge a book by its cover–the story never felt didactic or heavy-handed.

Snow: Exactly! And she added so many little details to flesh it out.

Kate: I was also very partial to the art. Stinky was just menacing enough to be credible as a monster, but just cute enough to be appealing. Ditto for his toad sidekick.

Snow: I really liked how she used color lines to outline, rather than black. It reminds me of a technique my friends and I would use to color when we were kids.

Kate: Good point about Davis’ artwork. Stinky has some of the most distinctive artwork of any of the Toon Books. I liked Luke on Loose by Harry Bliss for the same reason I liked Stinky–lots of great visual jokes, from a "Wanted" posted featuring the Hulk to a "walk-on" by Harold of Magic Crayon fame.

Snow: I think that that one will work even for kids who don’t know that it is set in New York City. They’ll still get that Luke is running all over a big city, creating quite a mess for such a small boy. When Good Comics for Kids reviewer Eva Volin was talking about the Toon Books, she said this about Stinky: "The story operates extremely well as both an easy reader and as a storybook, so is a satisfying read even for those who are past needing easy readers." I think that goes for Luke on the Loose, too.

Kate: Both books reward readers who flip through them multiple times. The amount of detail really encourages kids to pore over them.

Snow: Right! You WANT to go back and read them again! Oh, and as someone who works in a library with a large percentage of African-American patrons, I can’t say enough about how thrilled I was that Luke is drawn as African-Americanwithout it being about him being black.

Kate: Agreed on that front as well, Snow–Harry Bliss does a great job of representing just how multicultural New York City really is.

Snow: What did you think about the only superhero title in the bunch, Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever by Dean Haspiel and Jay Lynch?

Kate: I didn’t like Mo and Jo. It telegraphed its message from the very beginning, and the artwork was kind of garish and unappealing. I’m not sure if it would really satisfy a budding superhero fan. And you?

Snow: I didn’t hate it. It was funny in places, but it doesn’t really GO anywhere. They fight and that’s it. The first time I read it I kind of enjoyed it, but it doesn’t stand up well to a second or third reading. The art is so much different from the rest of the series. It’s more mature in its use of shading and lines and that makes it seem too old for the intended readers, imo.

Kate: I thought the two Benny and Penny books do a better job of depicting how siblings really interact. They bicker, they have different priorities, but when the chips are down, they help one another.

Snow: I must say, I really like Benny and Penny in Just Pretend and Benny and Penny in The Big No-No! by Geoffrey Hayes. They’re sweet, funny, and realistic.

Kate: What do you think of the artwork?

Snow: The art is a touch young, but I think that it works for the story and I haven’t seen it turn off any of my boy readers. It does look more traditionally picture book in style, but I think that it helps make that bridge between picture book and graphic novel.

Kate: It reminds me a lot of the art in There’s a Wolf at the Door by Zoey Alley and R.W. Alley (Roaring Brook Press), another book that straddles the fence between picture book and graphic novel. I also liked Benny and Penny‘s artwork, in part because it reminded me of some of my favorite picture books. It does challenge my idea of what constitutes "comic" art… but in a good way.

Snow: Great point! I think that a lot of the Toon Books are strong comics, but that traditional comic readers, especially adults, will have their preconceptions challenged by reading them.

Kate: One of the things I think the Toon Books do well is use word balloons and art to tell their stories. I know that sounds like a dopey or obvious thing to say, but many kids’ comics rely heavily on voice-overs and other narrative devices to tell their stories–the pictures feel like an afterthought.

Snow: Excellent point! I get tired of kids comics that are all panels and voiceovers. That’s BORING to read and dull to look at!

Kate: And why use the comic format if you’re going to rely so heavily on words?  What did you think of Otto’s Orange Day by Jay Lynch and Frank Cammuso?

Snow: On the one hand, I liked the art of Otto‘s, but the story seemed very been-there-done-that. Like I’d seen it before in other children’s fiction. How about you?

Kate: I agree–I thought the concept was tired and the character designs too similar to other popular cartoon figures. The genie looked like a first cousin of Robin Williams’ character in Aladdin!

Snow: Hee! I wonder if artists draw genies any other way.

Kate: Have we missed any of the titles?

Snow: Nope, that’s everything so far! Do you have anything to add on popularity, circulation, word of mouth, what you’ve heard about the titles from kids, parents, or teachers/librarians? Eva Volin had this to say: "As far as the Toon Books go, they are circulating better than I’d hoped in my library. I really struggled with where to shelve them — with the Easy Readers or with the graphic novels — to the point that coworkers would pop into my office to ask me about them just to watch me squirm. I ended up shelving them in with the graphic novels, reasoning that if I was going to make such a big deal about how graphic novels are a format and not a genre and, as such, deserve their own section, I couldn’t very well take what are clearly graphic novels and put them somewhere else. So I’ve been very happy to see that the books are circulating out of the graphic novel collection without any special help or flashing arrows pointing at them."

Kate: I don’t have any anecdotal evidence to add, since I’m not a librarian. My gut tells me, though, that we’ll be seeing a lot more kids’ comics in this picture book format, especially since it increases the number of places where one can buy and read them. Floppies have a pretty limited reach, given their current distribution channels. And you can’t overlook the importance of presentation–if I’m going to spend money on reading materials for a son or daughter, I’d be more inclined to buy a slightly more expensive book that will stand up to years of re-reading.

Snow: Very true. I work more with teens, but since I’m the default graphic novel reader at my branch, I’m often called upon to recommend comics to kids. What I love about the Toon Books is that they are for the younger brother or sister who sees big bro/sis getting Amulet or Dragon Drive and wants to read it also, but Mom says "Those books are too old for you!" I look like a wizard when I reach down, pluck Stinky or Benny and Penny off the shelf and hand it to them saying "THIS one’s for you!"

Kate: The other great thing about the Toon Books is that they’re free of advertising. So many floppies include ads for toys, TV shows, and other merchandise that I’d be hesitant to buy them for really young kids, even when the material was suitable for them.

Snow: YES! There aren’t enough kids comics that aren’t tied to advertising, whether it’s within the comic or it’s a comic about a popular game. I love that Toon Books aren’t about that. Any final words/thoughts?

Kate: If I’ve been critical of several titles, it’s only because I think the Toon Book concept is terrific. The best titles in the series are a real model of how to write appealing, age-appropriate comics for young kids, one of the most poorly served areas of the comic market.

Snow: And even the titles that aren’t as strong are still a good deal better than many of the books out there. Though the market is changing and growing stronger, thank goodness!

Kate: You’re right about the overall quality. Even the books I didn’t care for are still very accessible to young readers. Many of the comics I review are ill-suited to kids under the age of ten, either because the vocabulary is too sophisticated or the storyboarding is too complex. I just wish every book in the line was as good as Little Mouse, Stinky, Luke on the Loose, and the two Benny and Penny books.

Snow: Here, here! Those are must haves for any library’s collection and must reads for any young reader.

Toon Books titles discussed:

Little Mouse Gets Ready
Jeff Smith
Ages 4-8
Toon Books, September 2009, ISBN 978-1-935179-01-6
32 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

Jack in the Box
Art Spiegelman
Ages 4-8
Toon Books, October 2008, ISBN 978-0-9799238-3-8
32 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

Silly Lilly
Agnes Rosenstiehl
Ages 4-8
Toon Books, April 2008, ISBN 978-0-9799238-1-4
36 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

Eleanor Davis
Ages 6-10
Toon Books, August 2008, ISBN 978-0-9799238-4-5
36 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

Luke on the Loose
Harry Bliss
Ages 6-10
Toon Books, April 2009, ISBN 978-1-935179-00-9
32 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever
Jay Lynch, author; Dean Haspiel, illustrator
Ages 6-10
Toon Books, September 2008, ISBN 978-0-9799238-5-2
40 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

Benny and Penny in Just Pretend
Geoffrey Hayes
Ages 6-10
Toon Books, April 2008, ISBN 978-0-9799238-0-7
32 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

Benny and Penny in The Big No-No!
Geoffrey Hayes
Ages 6-10
Toon Books, May 2009, ISBN 978-0-9799238-9-0
32 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

Otto’s Orange Day
Jay Lynch, author; Frank Cammuso, illustrator
Ages 6-10
Toon Books, April 2008, ISBN 978-0-9799238-2-1
40 pages, $12.95 (hardcover)

This review is based on complimentary copies supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © Raw Junior, LLC/Toon Books.

Snow Wildsmith About Snow Wildsmith

Snow Wildsmith is a writer and former teen librarian. She has served on several committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2's Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on her first books, a nonfiction series for teens.

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