For those of us who are old enough to use words like “genre,” “allusion,” and “hermenutics” in our reviews, kid lit presents a unique set of challenges. Though it isn’t difficult to critique the quality of a book’s artwork or writing, it is fiendishly hard to predict what will resonate with young readers. Books that have struck me as hopelessly didactic or unfunny have proven big hits with the elementary school crowd—as I’ve discovered from scanning blogs and Amazon sales rankings—while some of my favorites have collected dust on library shelves. After Snow Wildsmith and I reviewed the Toon Books line, therefore, I decided to conduct some informal research: I sent my five-year-old cousins Claire and Lucinda all nine books to find out how real kids would react to these critically acclaimed comics.
Of the nine titles, five were a hit. Claire and Lucinda enjoyed Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever, Benny and Penny in Just Pretend, and Benny and Penny in The Big No-No!—not a surprise, considering that all three books feature siblings who are close in age, just like Claire and Lucinda. They also pronounced Otto’s Orange Day and Stinky “good reads,” though I got the distinct impression my cousin Kirsten, the girls’ mom, liked Stinky better than they did, as Kirsten declared Stinky the “most fabulous all-around” book in the set. (The girls liked Benny and Penny better.) All three felt that Jack and the Box, Luke on the Loose, and Silly Lilly were too simple to hold the attention of four and five-year-olds, though Kirsten suggested that these titles would be good for beginning readers who wanted material to tackle on their own. No word on the girls’ reaction to Little Mouse Gets Ready, though I’m guessing they found it similarly young for their tastes.
So how did their critiques align with mine and Snow’s? Here’s what the grown-ups had to say about Mo and Jo and the two Benny and Penny books:
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… 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 didn’t hate [Mo and Jo]. 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… 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… 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.
Here’s what we had to say about Stinky:
Kate: I really enjoyed Stinky. 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… 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: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. 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.
And here’s what we had to say about Otto’s Orange Day:
Kate: 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: On the one hand, I liked the art of Otto’s Orange Day, but the story seemed very been-there-done-that. Like I’d seen it before in other children’s fiction.
What I found most interesting in comparing our reactions with Claire and Lucinda’s is how important it was for them to be able to identify with the characters on an immediate, personal level. I didn’t think much of Mo and Jo because I focused primarily on the superhero elements, which seemed like a pale imitation of the “real” thing. But for Claire and Lucinda, the sibling dynamic was clearly a big draw—something I hadn’t even considered when I initially discussed the book with Snow, owing to my dislike of the artwork. Re-reading Mo and Jo, however, I can see the degree to which it explores the same sibling rivalry issues as the Benny and Penny books, offering a similar message in a very different package. I still don’t love the artwork, but I have a new appreciation for what creators Dean Haspiel and Jay Lynch are attempting to do.
I’d like to extend a big thank-you to my cousin Kirsten and her girls Claire and Lucinda for taking the time to read and review all nine Toon Books. I truly value their opinions, and hope they prove useful for parents, teachers, and librarians who’d like more information about the Toon Books line.
POSTSCRIPT, 5/25/09: After reading this post, Kirsten had this to add: "The girls thought [Little Mouse Gets Ready] was hysterical at the end. But they only wanted to read it twice. After that they forgot it. The ones that they’ve asked for the most, and continue to ask for, are the Benny and Penny ones."