Designer and editor Françoise Mouly launched TOON Books in 2008 with her husband, Pulitzer Prize–winning author-illustrator Art Spiegelman. The comic-book series took off, won awards, and continues to thrive.
This might be enough work for your average editor, especially one who is also the art director of The New Yorker, but something tells me “average” is not a part of Mouly’s vocabulary. TOON has just launched a new imprint for older readers, one that celebrates visual literacy, called TOON Graphics. One of their three debut titles includes Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel, to be released in October, with stunning India ink paintings from Italian illustrator and comics and graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti. But first up, coming in August, will be Theseus and the Minotaur from Yvan Pommaux, one of France’s most celebrated children’s book authors.
I took some time from Mouly’s busy schedule to ask her about the new imprint and what she’s learned about children and reading from over five years at TOON Books.
Can you talk about the decision to start this new imprint? Why base an entire imprint around visual literacy?
Nowadays, we’re awash in pictures—we see thousands every day. As the art editor of The New Yorker, which publishes a new drawing on the cover every week—a drawing that millions of people respond to—I know the impact a single image can have. The New Yorker has the best reportage, fiction, poetry, humor, critics, but often it’s a cartoon that best sums up what distinguishes it from other magazines. And what makes that New Yorker cover stand out is that it represents the point of view of an individual artist.
In our increasingly visual culture we expect readers to respond to pictures. Yet when children approach third grade, there’s mounting pressure to narrow their reading to chapter books—books with no pictures at all. My mission with the new line of TOON Graphics is to make books for readers ages 8 and up that offer both rich text and captivating images—books that promote both verbal and visual literacy. So at TOON, we produce books with high production values and spend years editing them, because we want each of our books to be a treasure box that a reader can really own. With a good book, he or she can go back, reread, and discover new details each time, especially when there are pictures. We care about making books that both boys and girls will fall in love with—too often, boys’ tastes are ignored.
We’re launching the new line with Fred’s Philemon series [Cast Away on the Letter A: A Philemon Adventure], the stories I read when I was 10 or 12 years old, as a young girl growing up in Paris. These are the stories that showed me how funny and smart comics could be. These books don’t dumb things down for kids—they actually strengthen critical thinking and inference skills. In comics, all the pictures are symbols. And because so much takes place between the panels, because the story has to be put together by the reader, all the action takes place in the reader’s imagination. Readers make connections, and it makes them want to read on—and read more.
I love Gaiman’s and Mattotti’s Hansel & Gretel. The writing is rich. ("They went so deep into the old forest that the sunlight was stained green by the leaves.") And the art is striking. I have never seen a more chill-inducing rendition of the witch's gingerbread cottage. I swear it looks like there's a skull atop it. Can you talk about pairing Gaiman with Mattotti for this retelling?
In 2006, I was asked by the Director at the gallery at the Metropolitan Opera to help curate an exhibit for the staging of Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel. We called on artists from the art world, like John Currin and George Condo, but also on cartoonists like Gahan Wilson, Jules Feiffer, Eleanor Davis, and Lorenzo Mattotti. Mattotti responded with enthusiasm: He was eager to explore the emotional side of what he had felt when he first read the story as a kid—that story had terrified him. He produced large paintings in India ink, stunning paintings of the children lost in the forest or encountering the cottage in the woods. The art is both so bold and subtle that you have to slow down to really see it. It’s like when someone is whispering: to see things you might not at first notice, to tune into every detail, you have to be quiet and attentive and then you can truly inhabit the work.
I always wanted to publish Mattotti’s Hansel & Gretel in the U.S. as a book but was concerned about presenting an art book based on a fairy tale—I worried that it might only find a rarefied audience…until I thought of asking Neil Gaiman. Neil’s response was strikingly similar to Mattotti’s: He also vividly remembers the impact the story had on him when he was young—he too was terrified—and he wanted to revisit that moment that is at the core of a lot of his creative powers. He loved Lorenzo’s paintings and right away we started envisioning a beautiful book object, discussing the size, the lavish black-and-white, the parallel tracks for the images and the text. And when he set out to write, Gaiman went right into the core of this powerful story: He made it about hunger, about realizing that you’re meat, and about parents who abandon you because there’s not enough food to go around. I think it’s a very successful collaboration, because the art and the writing could each stand on its own but are even more thrilling when together. To me, it’s both a work of art and a work of literature—and a great example of what books can do at their best.
What new things, if anything, have you learned in these TOON years about children and reading and/or comics?
Six years ago, when I went around offering the TOON books to different publishers, they all said the same thing, "That’s a great idea, Françoise, but there’s no category for this. No one else is doing it.” Which of course is why I ended up having to publish them on my own. I loved comics when I was a young girl growing up in Paris and didn’t understand why American culture was so prejudiced against them. I wanted good kids’ comics when my kids were at that age: It certainly worked for them.
But what’s new today is that more and more parents, librarians, and teachers are increasingly open to using comics and the prejudices are finally fading away. After Maus, Persepolis, Building Stories and Bone, comics—now called Graphic Novels—have become top circulating books, bringing kids to libraries, and the librarians know it. When a parent or teacher of a struggling reader shares with me how TOON Books helped a child not just learn to read, but to want to read, it is immensely rewarding. It reminds me of why we all work so hard to spread the good word about visual literacy.
When I started, I just wanted to make great books. Now, we’re designing a Second Grade Comics Unit with complete curricula and lesson plans! But it’s all for the same goal—to get good books, and good comics in the hands of kids.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.