Francoise Mouly’s Toon Books & Art Spiegelman’s Jack And The Box
Toon Books have been going for a few months now and I finally got hold of the set of the first releases. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing up my thoughts on the whole line. Essentially it’s the latest endeavour from Francoise Mouly, famous for being one of the guiding lights behind RAW and, more recently, the excellent series of Little Lit books designed as graphic novels for all ages by the likes of Gaiman, Burns, Clowes and many more famous names.
However, whilst Little Lit was aimed at an all ages readership, it did demand a certain level of ability. But Toon Books is completely different. It’s entire line is designed for readers aged 4 up. The concept is that simple, and one that is so instantly obvious that you really can’t hink why no-one’s done it before. After all, many of the greatest children’s picture books are comics in all but name. But when Mouly took the pitch and mock-ups round to the publishers all she got was:
“Gee, that’s a wonderful idea. It’s beautifully executed. I wish we could do it but we can’t”
The reluctance was simply down to the fact that there was no existing slot for it, no section in a bookstore to fit it into. Insane? Perhaps. So Mouly decided to go it alone. And the result is the first wave of six beautiful hardbacks, lavish in their design and artwork, yet simple in their words, designed in conjunction with teachers and educators to make it immediately accessible for the initial reader, tapping into that phase of reading where visual literacy far outstrips literacy with words.
“With the Toon Books we were building from (Little Lit’s all ages appeal) … and also narrowing it down to a very specific moment in childhood development where you enter into school, where you enter into literacy. What we set out to do was to share our love of books, of books in general, of the printed object” (Mouly interviewed in Teachers & Writers magazine, Summer 2008)
(Francoise Mouly & her husband Art Spiegelman)
Of course, making the most beautiful kids graphic novels with a simple, controlled vocabulary could have produced just more dull early reader stories. Anyone with children has suffered those at some point. Books sent home from school with an emerging reader that were simple torture to get through as they just failed to engage with the child. Having read all six, and shared them with Molly I can safely say this just isn’t the case with Toon Books. Of course, Molly is 9 and is far above the level that these books are aimed at, but I’m certain that Mouly would get great pleasure from hearing that Molly absolutely adored them as well. After all, what older child doesn’t enjoy re-visiting their own childhood and going down a level or two. At one point Molly wished that these had been around for her and is already planning on giving these review copies to some of the “babies” she knows. All six were quickly read and re-read, with Molly, myself and wife Louise loving the stories, the artwork, the simplicity, the design, the everything really.
Enough with the background, onto the first Toon Book on the pile…..
The comic fan in me picked this one first to read purely on Spiegelman’s name. And from a sense of curiosity as to whether Spiegelman; a master of the comic form, could adapt his style to such a different and challenging audience as your average 4 year old. Personally, from the view of the grown up I definitely think he does.
Jack receives a little present from his mom and dad, a jack in the box. After initially being frightened of this “silly toy”, Jack starts to play with it and soon realises the fun he can have with his new friend (who he later finds out is called Zack). The initial scaryness of the character is quickly overcome by Spiegelman’s visual emphasis on making Zack just look silly plus the clever repetition of the phrase “silly toy”. Within a few pages Jack ‘s reality makes way for fantasy and the adventures of Jack and The Box get wilder and wilder, with the introduction of Mack, who lives in Zack’s hat and his duck Quack, and the lots and lots of little ducks belonging to quack. Chaos ensues in a very Dr Seuss-like way. In fact, with it’s simple set-ups and language, full of plentiful repetition for the young reader to play with, Jack And The Box felt very much like one of the good Dr’s works. And that, of course, is never a bad thing.
Visually, Spiegelman keeps things nice and simple, with rabbits playing the main roles and a page limited to 2 panels at most. But within this simplicity there’s a beauty of design. Reality is a dull, faded blue colour scheme, but as fantasy starts to creep in, the backgrounds start to change, first yellow, then pale purple and finally bright orange when things are at their most chaotic. It’s a simple, yet brilliantly effective touch. A child won’t notice it directly perhaps, but the visual stimulus of the increased vibrancy of the colour will definitely have an effect upon the reader.
Jack And The Box would be a wonderful present to give to any young child. But to a child reluctant to enter the world of reading Jack And The Box, together with all of the other fine Toon Books, may just be the best present you could give.