Comic books dazzle kids with gripping stories and spectacular artwork. In the form of sturdy hardcovers, TOON Books blend art and words into a class act. Publisher Francoise Mouly shares how these smart comics help children master reading skills.
Parent & Child: What made you want to create TOON Books?
Francoise Mouly: When I met my husband, comics were not taken seriously. There were a lot of prejudices, so at that point I had a mission: to make beautifully produced books of comics. That became less necessary as they became more successful. But as [Art Spiegelman and I] had our own experience as parents, with our daughter (now 21) and our son (now 16), I discovered a great need. It seemed that comics for young kids as books was something that would be really helpful in an era where everybody’s decrying the fact that kids are not reading anymore.
P&C: So you think comics can help kids learn to read?
Mouly: Absolutely. The great thing about a comic is that it’s a visual narrative flow, so kids can get into it without having to be taught all of the difficult logistics of deciphering the words. It’s much more intuitive. It’s not just semantic concepts of the words; it’s so much more that is being communicated by intonation and facial expression and gestures—and that is actually represented in a visual narrative.
P&C: As you were creating the TOON books, what kind of curriculum and reading concerns did you take into account?
Mouly: I found out that doing comics for very young children forces you to get to the essence of the medium, because you can’t use any artifice. You have to be crystal clear in your communication. I worked with one teacher who was incredibly helpful. I would ask the artist to do a first draft of the story, and then she would vet that—she would go over it word by word and explain which words were difficult. It goes [by] fast, but there’s a moment where kids have a little bit of phonetics and some sight words, but every balloon is an effort, so it has to be words that they’ve had. It’s not like you can’t introduce new words, but when you do, you have to be aware of it and then give whatever cues are necessary—sometimes visual cues. So we invented solutions after we saw the various problems. For example, in one of the books, some of the words were stretching the possibilities a bit, so we put in a little rebus to illustrate those words. The word “ghost,” for example, is not the most obvious word to have to read, so we put a little picture of a ghost. We didn’t use the same solution in every book; we kept looking for ways to use the medium in terms of sound effects or captions.
P&C: How have librarians responded to the books?
Mouly: When we launched the first three books, librarians’ reactions were—“Where have you been all along? These are so fabulous; we want them!” [Then] I went to a panel at the Public Library Association and answered questions from librarians, and I was shocked because they were saying “OK, what we really need is nonfiction comics.” They were taking it all for granted and saying, “So now we need this, this, and this.” So I’m working on the nonfiction TOON book.
P&C: And teachers?
Mouly: I worked with teachers in Maryland, because they have a comic book initiative in the state. We sent the TOON books to first and second grade teachers and had them use them with their classrooms. We got great feedback from them, including a number of teachers who said things like, “I was using this with my class and then the special ed teacher just came up and said, ‘Where did you get this? I NEED this! I have to have this!’” because the kids were so enthusiastic. Of course in schools they wouldn’t use the TOON books instead of textbooks; this is all supplemental reading.
P&C: So the kids’ response has been positive, too?
Mouly: Yes, very immediate. Comics invite repeated readings, because there’s more to find in the images. In the first reading you get the story, but in the second reading you get all of the little supporting players, all of the ways that the theme is conveyed. Immediately [the kids] start talking about their interest in making their own comics. I think comics are a medium where kids can get very readily involved—there’s something in it for them that is decipherable. Another thing that worked really well is that a child of 6 or 7 who’s entering school and is supposed to learn to read at that moment will not be caught dead reading a “baby book”—an illustrated book—but comics are perceived as a big kid medium, so they’re delighted to be given comics.
P&C: Do you have any advice for parents with a kid who’s into pictures and spatial relationships more than text?
Mouly: Often what teachers will do, which is very effective, is let the kid talk about the book before they read it. They’ll show the cover and say, “What do you think this story is about?” That’s interesting—to let the kid find out how much of it she can figure out on her own. Also I think if parents can share the pleasure of reading—find a thing that they like themselves and simply never turn it into anything other than a pleasure—then there’s no doubt that that will yield a kid who will like the experience.