In 2008, French artist and designer Françoise Mouly and Pulitzer Prize-winning author/illustrator Art Spiegelman launched a new series of beginning readers. It was a promising idea, and over the years I’ve watched new titles with interest and talked it up to fellow librarians and parents. I even blogged about the series’ launch in 2008, but I think the series works so well that I now take this opportunity, at the release of a brand-new April title, to mention it again.

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TOON Books (a Candlewick imprint) are technically what are called emerging reader titles, but the difference is that these are comic books designed for beginning readers ages four and up, books they can read themselves. The books are divided into three categories: Level One, or beginning comics for those just learning to read, are for grades K to 1 with short sentences and only one to two panels per page; Level Two, or easy-to-read comics for emerging readers, are for grades 1 to 2, also with short sentences, but more repetition and one to four panels per page; and Level Three, comics for beginning readers well on their way, are for grades 2 to 3 with longer sentences, transitions in time and place throughout the story and chapters.

“We both learned our love of reading through comics,” Mouly and Spiegelman write at their TOON Books site. “So did our kids. Now we want to share that pleasure with a new generation as it enters an increasingly visual culture.”

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The re-emerging popularity of comic books was still being touted by some as a trend in 2008. Given their approach to this series, Mouly and Spiegelman’s venture was being marketed as a contemporary spin on emerging readers. But I say then and now (though I think hardly anyone would still refer to comics as a passing fancy) that what matters is taking a close look at the books themselves: Are they high-quality literature for children? Yes. Since it was launched three years ago, the series has brought readers nearly 15 outstanding titles by artists from a wide range of backgrounds—established children’s book author/illustrators (Agnès Rosenstiehl), cartoonists and comic books artists (Harry Bliss and Jeff Smith), and some new talent (Trade Loeffler). And the titles have racked up a whole slew of honors, including Theodor Seuss Geisel nods on more than occasion.

The latest title, Patrick in a Teddy Bear’s Picnic and Other Stories, comes from author/illustrator Geoffrey Hayes. Hayes previously created three other TOON titles, all about mouse siblings named Benny and Penny. (Benny and Penny in the Big No-No! was a 2010 Geisel award winner.) This new story, introducing Patrick the bear, works in many of the same ways the Benny and Penny books do: It draws children in with its emotionally resonant light-hearted domestic dramas, all laid out in panels with speech balloons. As with the endearing Benny and Penny titles, Hayes’s illustrations are entertaining and action-packed, his storytelling skills spot-on. In Patrick, a Level Two reader rendered with great warmth in colored pencils, a young bear takes a picnic with his mother and, later, manages to stand up to a bully. In two very funny short vignettes, Patrick also attempts to take a nap, though not without resistance.

Patrick also features an endpaper tip sheet for parents on reading comics with children. The advice wisely notes that, above all, these books are meant to be enjoyed: “There is of course never one right way to read, so go for the shared pleasure,” they write.

TOON Books is a delightful series that works, and consider this my barbaric yawp to get the books in the hands of more children and their parents.

Rather, imagine cartoon-me in a panel with a speech balloon that says “Yawp!” That’s more like it.

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. When forced to count, she thinks it's more like between 400 to 500 features of book creators over the past five years. Julie received her Master's in Information Sciences at UT, with a focus on children's librarianship. She is currently writing about the untold tales of children's literature, along with Elizabeth Bird and Peter D. Sieruta. Tentatively titled Wild Things!: The True, Untold Stories Behind the Most Beloved Children’s Books and Their Creators, it will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012.