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Happy Anniversary, Toon Books!

Jaime Hernandez, Kevin McCloskey, Françoise Mouly, Sergio García Sánchez, Ricardo “Liniers” Siri, Brigid Alverson at TCAF 2018

This year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) celebrated ten years of Toon Books, the publisher of high-quality comics for children founded by Françoise Mouly, with a panel featuring Mouly and the following artists, moderated by Good Comics for Kids’ own Brigid Alverson.

Kevin McCloskey is a professor of illustration at Kutztown University and created the ‘Giggle and Learn’ series for Toon. The newest, fourth in the series, is Snails Are Just My Speed! He also, as you might guess from his appearance, spent many years as a department store Santa, making it to the pinnacle of 34th Street.

Jaime Hernandez was debuting his The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America at the show. He is the co-creator of the award-winning series Love and Rockets.

Françoise Mouly is the publisher, editorial director, and senior designer of TOON Books, launched in 2008. She is also the art editor of The New Yorker, responsible for over a thousand of their covers.

Kevin McCloskey, Jaime Hernandez, Françoise Mouly, Sergio García Sánchez, Ricardo “Liniers” Siri, and Brigid Alverson at TCAF 2018

Kevin McCloskey, Jaime Hernandez, Françoise Mouly, Sergio García Sánchez, Ricardo “Liniers” Siri, and Brigid Alverson at TCAF 2018

Sergio García Sánchez is a celebrated Spanish experimental cartoonist, publishing more than 45 books in nine languages, including Toon’s Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure. He is also a professor of comics in France and Spain.

Ricardo “Liniers” Siri is an Argentine cartoonist. He has created the comic strip Macanudo as well as several books for Toon, including The Big Wet Balloon and Good Night, Planet.

The first question, for Mouly, covered the beginnings of the publisher. She fell in love with the medium of comics when she met her now-husband, Art Spiegelman. First, with the noted anthology RAW, they made the case for comics that weren’t for kids, in order for it to be taken seriously as a medium. Then she noticed, as a mother, a lack of good kids’ comics. After years of trying to pitch ideas to publishers like HarperCollins or Random House, she finally decided to publish them herself. That approach helped Toon survive the ups and downs of the market for printed books.

The goals with the books are multi-faceted. They must have a limited vocabulary and clear exposition of story, due to the audience being new to reading. That requires discipline and hard work from the authors and illustrators. The scripts are vetted for reading level and panel complexity. Children are attentive readers, and they read the book over and over again, which requires a lot of editing effort, including conversations with the artists to respect their intent, as well as creating lesson plans for educators.

Hernandez discussed how he tailored his work for Toon and its audience, since his other comics are for adults. He asked himself, “What could I handle when I was a kid? What did I like about comics?” As a result, he used a more cartoony style, making art that was more fluid and open, to speak more to kids. Once he got comfortable with the approach, he had fun stretching outside of his usual characters. He also felt this loosened him up for when he went back to his usual work.

Speaking about his new book on snails, McCloskey told of old prints he found when teaching the history of graphic design, including one of snails shooting arrows at each other before they “make babies”, which may have inspired the story of Cupid’s arrows. He’d drawn something similar, but after fact-checking, he had to change the image to the snails entwined.

There’s also a drawing in the book of a snail going over a knife without harm due to the mucus they produce. Originally, it was a razor blade, but that was considered too scary.

García Sánchez illustrated Lost in NYC, which was written by Mouly’s daughter Nadja Spiegelman. Normally, he works closely with his partner, but this was his experiment in working the “American way”, with a separate writer. He liked getting editorial feedback on what was and wasn’t clear.

Mouly added that this book had a fairly simple narrative arc because there were so many ideas, maps, and photos that they needed the story to not be too complex. A teacher told them that children want structure and mental maps since their world is otherwise chaotic. Too much fantasy and things that don’t make sense makes them want to see the organization of information. The story is about both the terror and excitement of autonomy and independence.

She continued with a story of García Sánchez’s trip to New York. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he got lost unaccompanied over three days while taking photos of everything in the subway. There was a “big cop” who found him suspicious, so García Sánchez ran away and got lost in a crowd. That story is in the book as García Sánchez and the officer are visible in various pages.

Liniers, on the other hand, came to NYC from Argentina. He wanted to find Art Spiegelman in the phone book, but he thought he wouldn’t be there, so he looked up Mouly instead, but never called her. (Mouly said Spiegelman was in the phone book, but no one ever called.)

Seven years later, he was in Montreal, and he was reached out to because of his comic strip. He came to New York again but was scared of Mouly and The New Yorker offices. His comments on how he was always scared of women but now had three daughters drew laughs, particularly once he called them his addiction and said they were way more expensive than drugs.

He drew The Big Wet Balloon based on how his first two daughters worked together, fought, and worked together again. Good Night, Planet was for his smallest daughter, who had a new toy named “Planet” (“Planeta” in Spanish). Working for children, he watches what kids do and takes what he can use, combined with what he remembered about childhood.

Mouly closed the panel with comments on the virtue of being honest about the desire to communicate with comics. She said, “These books will help kids form their mental maps when they grow up. I can’t think of a better goal.”

Johanna About Johanna

Johanna Draper Carlson has been reviewing comics for over 20 years. She manages, the longest-running independent review site online that covers all genres of comic books, graphic novels, and manga. She has an MA in popular culture, studying online fandom, and was previously, among many other things, webmaster for DC Comics. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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