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Françoise Mouly’s Toon Books Grows With Toon Graphics

by  in Comic News Comment
Françoise Mouly’s Toon Books Grows With Toon Graphics

Françoise Mouly needs little introduction. As co-founder, co-editor and designer of the legendary “Raw” magazine, she created a color palette that has defined independent comics since. For more than twenty years, she has served as Art Editor of “The New Yorker,” and in 2008, she founded Toon Books, which focuses on releasing children’s books in comics form from creators including Jeff Smith, Renee French, Rutu Modan and more.

Now, the imprint’s focus expanding to include 8-12 year olds with Toon Graphics. The first two books have already been released — “Theseus and the Minotaur” by Yvan Pommaux and “Cast Away on the Letter A: A Philemon Adventure” by Fred. The third book, which comes out in October and has already been optioned as film, is “Hansel and Gretel” by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti. In the spring, three more books join the line: “The Wild Piano: A Philemon Adventure” by Fred, “Orpheus in the Underworld” by Yvan Pommaux, and “Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure” by Nadja Spiegelman and Sergio Garcia Sanchez.

Mouly, long been one of the most inventive, playful and thoughtful figures in comics will be honored in the fall by the Eric Carle Museum as one of “the talented people who have played an instrumental role in making children’s books a vibrant and influential art and literary form in America.” CBR News spoke with the never-resting creator about her new endeavor, including the reasoning for expanding Toon’s focus, offering its line in multiple languages and why the much-used “all-ages” descriptor is really a misnomer.

CBR News: Toon Books has been publishing books for younger readers for years now. What led you to expand to Toon Graphics and publish books for older kids, as well?

Françoise Mouly: It’s the same impulse that dates back all my life, I think, of wanting to share the things that I love. I’ve been the Art Editor of “The New Yorker” for over twenty years now. You can have artists like Chris Ware and Dan Clowes published in “The New Yorker.” You have graphic novels taken seriously. You have Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi dealing with serious topics in comics, and comics accepted in museums, but one of the areas that I felt was under-appreciated — even by those artists — was comics for children.

As a mother, it was clear to me when you’re coming of age, and becoming a reader, how great comics are and how they contribute to your visual literacy — which is an important component of literacy in the 21st century, because it’s a very visual world. You’re assailed by thousands of pictures every day, so you have to learn to read pictures, and what better way to form an informed, intelligent reader than comics!

Since 2008, with Toon Books, we’ve done leveled readers in comics form as a concerted program of giving quality, literary, artistically good books to people whose vocabulary is beginning. We wanted to move into what’s often misconstrued as “all ages.” I say often misconstrued, because in publishing for children, that I learned early on that there’s not a reader that’s “all ages.” The adult is probably the only reader that reads stuff for young kids and older kids. There’s a range of ages 8-12 where the reading ability is there, and it’s a matter of the material. The stories can be quite sophisticated in the ways they are told. That’s what Toon Graphics is. Toon Graphics can be comics the way the Fred books that we’re launching are. “Cast Away on the Letter A” is pure comics. It can be illustrated narrative, like we’re doing in a book of mythology with “Theseus and the Minotaur” — as well as “Hansel and Gretel,” the work of Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti, which is a visual narrative in Mattotti’s pictures, and on a parallel plane, the written narrative by Neil Gaiman. The two dance with each other without one being subservient to the other.

Those three books in so many ways seem to sum up the scope of what you’re trying to do.

I’m glad you’re saying that. In some ways — I think it’s always been true for me — it’s easier for me to try to do things than to think them through and explain them. I’m always grateful that I became a publisher rather than somebody who has to make a pitch to a board of directors or have to apply for grants. It’s in the making of the book that I find it starts having a life of its own.

With “Hansel and Gretel” and “Theseus and the Minotaur,” it’s been observed that a myth is never told, it’s always being retold. That creates a different relationship between the author and the reader.

It’s more humble than the conception of the author as the one who creates and invents everything. It’s more in the service of the story and its in the way its told. It’s very basic to the human experience — sharing stories that capture your imagination. One of the teachers that I was talking to said one of the things he liked was that — even with superheroes — he can point out to kids that there’s a basic mythology and it gets told in many different ways by many different writers and many different artists.

Neil Gaiman did a presentation at Carnegie Hall. There were three thousand people in the room, and on stage with a microphone, he read his story of “Hansel and Gretel.” People were mesmerized. It felt very primal to stand there and just listen to the story being told. Same thing with Lorenzo Mattotti’s images of the story. It feels like it goes back to something very connected to one’s imagination — and also to one’s creativity, because of course, when you invent a new story, you’re also telling a version of the stories that you’ve heard of that kind. Toon Graphics feels complimentary to what we have done so far, and expands it.

Talk a little about Fred and the Philemon books. I know there are sixteen books in this series. Are they all along the lines of this one?

Each one is better than the next, I have to say. That’s one of the real thrills for me. I read them when I was twelve-thirteen, so to rediscover them was a thrill. When you publish something you have to translate — in comics, translation is very labor intensive. I’m re-inhabiting all those stories, at least as much — if not more — than I did when I first read them.

I met Fred back in 2011 at Angouleme. When he was a kid — his parents were Greek immigrants who settled in Paris — every night, his mother was telling him stories, a mix of Lewis Carroll and “Gulliver’s Travels” and Greek mythology and all of the stories that she had read. Then he would go to sleep, and before he fell asleep he would make himself invent a new story based on what he had just heard. It has a lot in common with Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti retelling “Hansel and Gretel” and the story of Theseus and the Labyrinth. I feel like I’m taking a graduate course in storytelling and how the world of our imagination is willed out of those stories. A lot of the artists that I work with are narrative storytellers, and when I quiz them about what they read when they were kids, they were deeply involved in reading and their imagination was fueled by all those stories, mythology and fairy tales.

I think it’s very, very important now, because so much of the popular culture is second and third grade derivations of those stories. It’s sad that the kids reading the “Percy Jackson” series may not have even read the originals. In the books, we have indexes in the back where we give a lot of information that makes you want to read more and find out more. In the Fred book, there’s stuff about little green men, centaurs, the Raft of the Medusa, Robinson Crusoe, talking donkeys — I can’t tell you how pleasurable it is. For example, Neil Gaiman went back to the original version of Grimm’s fairy tales and named the mother the mother. It’s only later on that it became the stepmother who wants to abandon the children. In the original version of the story, written by the Grimm brothers in 1812, it’s the mother and the father, and it’s a cold calculation.

You mentioned that in addition to more “Philemon” books by Fred, there will be more mythology. What else are you planning?

We’re doing more Toon Books and more Toon Graphics. At Toon Books, we’re launching a new “Benny and Penny” book, the fifth one, by Geoffrey Hayes. The first one was in 2008. We now have a group of kids that have grown up with “Benny and Penny,” which is fantastic. We’ve been working with schools to do lesson plans and comics units. There’s still a lot of resistance to using comics, but we’re making it possible to use them with very young kids. We’re doing seminars and webinars and educational outreach, and we now have Toon Books used in over one hundred schools. We have a French comic by Philippe Coudray which is “Benjamin Bear” in English. When I first published those I was afraid that they were too sophisticated for a US audience. They’re very sophisticated they have to do with logic and common sense and physics and rules of perspective and perception and they’re filled with puzzles. Each one is like a game. We’re putting out the third one of those next year.

We’re launching a new Philemon book every season, one in the spring and one in the fall. Same with the graphic mythology. We’re coming out with the story of “Orpheus” in the spring, after “Theseus.” With the Toon Graphics, there’s two different fields where we can do books and feel like we’re contributing something that truly nobody else is doing. There’s plenty of people doing independent comics, but there’s not plenty of people doing good, solid kids comics that not only bear reading but also bear re-reading — which is one of the things that we’re trying to do.

This season is a big one for Toon. There’s the three Toon Graphics. You have a new Toon Books title, “Benny and Penny: Lost and Found” by Geoffrey Hayes, plus two older books coming out in paperback.

Yes, but it was also a big season last year. We keep expanding, but for 2015, we’re looking at four to six books per season, so ten to twelve books for the year, which is more than previous years. So yes, you’re seeing the beginning of an expansion. Everything was new when we started, but now we have more “Benny and Penny,” more “Benjamin Bear,” more graphic mythology. We have another book in the works by David Nytra who did the “Secret of the Stone Frog,” which is an extraordinary work of storytelling. That was a long book, but he has another book that’s 120 pages that will be coming out next year from Toon Graphics that’s just stunning.

Will you be publishing more bilingual books like you did with Liniers’ book last year?

Yes. One of the books we’re doing in the spring of 2015 is a Toon Graphic and the artist, Sergio Garcia Sanchez, is Spanish. It’s “Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.” It’s unbelievable, and we’re doing a Spanish edition of it as well.

One thing I did want to ask about is how your releases work with Common Core, because I know that you and Toon Books spend a lot of time and energy making books that are fun, but that can also be taught and incorporated into lesson plans.

That’s a really important point, and I’m glad you bring it up. We’re fighting prejudices against comics — which I’ve done all my life. That’s not new. We’re also fighting prejudices and contempt against literature for children — which is new to me. I wasn’t aware of how dismissive people can be towards work that is done for kids. The more time I’ve spent working at Toon, I see “The Cat in the Hat” as as great an achievement as any other book. It’s not easy to do things for kids. I think of it as poetry versus prose. You have less tools, so you have to be as precise and evocative as you can be. You can’t just go, “Wink, you know what I mean,” the way a lot of contemporary work — especially in popular culture — does.

One of the things that I discovered, which really was shocking for me, was that there is a complete cleavage in American publishing. The belief is either it’s art and literature, and you would not dirty yourself to think of it as being educational, or it’s educational, at which point it can be junk and it doesn’t really matter. The ones who suffer from this are the kids because the stuff that’s educational is not meant to be artistic or funny. And if it’s funny, it can’t be educational — it’s mindless. Because, of course, you only will learn something if it’s interesting to you. I mean, duh. [Laughs]

If you’ve ever had kids, or if you’ve ever been a kid, you realize that if it’s boring, kids will not pay attention to it. What triggers the intellectual appetite for something is the intellectual challenge, so it has to be good, it has to have literary value, it has to have value to have any value for the kids. Every time a young reader reads a Toon Book, they have actually acquired a number of words and vocabulary and concepts and they can move onto the next book and the next level of reading. That’s how they learn. Not because some teacher had a funnel and stuffs information down their gullets like geese. It’s because they have made an active act of reading something that delighted them and amused them and made them think. That’s how it gets incorporated. We give a lot of tools to teachers and educators, and they are so eager for it. Our books win prizes in the children books world, and we give lesson plans — and we work with really smart people for those lesson plans.

The principles behind Common Core are jargon up the gazoo, but the idea is to train twelfth graders to do literary criticism and then be able to operate in college, and then go back in earlier grades so that they can learn that thinking. For example, in kindergarten and first grade, they are reading books and can discuss who are the characters, what are the main ideas. For us, it’s great, because we have good stories and then we basically deconstruct them in lesson plans. That’s what we’re doing with our comics unit. We give them sample questions and activity sheets and games around the books. The books are obviously arranged by level, so they have activities for those ages.

For example, “Theseus and the Minotaur” talks about the architect Daedalus building the labyrinth and how it was built, the construction techniques of ancient Greece. If you were Daedalus with that assignment, how would you build a labyrinth with today’s material at your disposal? Those are good questions. I spend a lot of time with teachers and education consultants going over those things. We think about the implications of all the information in the book. It’s very exciting for us to put those things together. I think that publishers who hold their noses at the idea of, “Education is not for us, we just want to be artistic,” are misguided. They’re not doing a service to the kids.

I did want to mention that I really love the maps in the books.

I do too! I’m a sucker for maps. You’ll see, if one bothers to look — as I did — in the mandate of the ALA, The American Library Association, they redefined literacy to include visual literacy, including diagrams and maps as well as comics. I work at “The New Yorker,” and the magazine is a very heavily visual animal — but the website is also driven by the visual. It’s to get people to read them, but how you present information visually makes such a difference. When we were doing the Orpheus book, someone said, “But we have to put a map of the underworld.” [Laughs] We’re working on that right now, because every one of those books has to have a map.

You’ll see in the “Subway” book that comes out in the spring, it’s almost like the whole story is inhabiting a map. My background is in architecture and here I’m working with an artist who is insanely sophisticated about being able to see space in every direction and put it all in one picture. He’s really great. It has such sophisticated visual narrative techniques.

In a way, I feel like vindicated that I did this. I love my kids, and as a mom I saw something that nobody else was doing. In the kids world, there’s still a lot of room to discover new things. I’m glad I’m doing this. I think there will be more that will inspire more and better things in the field.

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