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April 3, 2010

Beyond the Pages with Toon Book Publisher Francoise Mouly

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The week of April 5, 2010, marks the two-year anniversary of Toon Books, the little company that could. It’s the brainchild of Francoise Mouly, art editor for The New Yorker and the wife of comics legend Art Spiegelman. The past few months have seen a significant leap forward for the publisher, with their Benny and Penny in the Big No-No! winning the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award from the American Library Association this past January, and Jeff Smith’s Little Mouse Gets Ready earning an Honor mention. In May, at BookExpo America, Toon will host a “Drink and Draw” event with several of its popular authors and illustrators. Publisher Francoise Mouly recently spoke to GNR to explain her editorial vision for Toon and outline the goals ahead. But first, a little digression into the recent anniversary issue of the New Yorker that featured the work of several graphic-novel stalwarts. (Read about it here.)  

Where did you get the idea for the recent New Yorker cover featuring all the graphic-novel artists?

I knew my assignment was to do something amazing that was never done before, which is not that obvious when you’re talking about a mass-produced magazine that runs off like close to a million and a half copies each issue. But I worked on a format that I had developed a few years ago, which is relatively doable, of split covers. So I knew I wanted to do more than one cover, and that was the beginning of the approach. I had a few artists in mind I wanted. Once I had that, I wanted the artists to work together. And I had a few possible combinations. One of the people that was likely for me was Chris Ware, because he had done the 80th anniversary cover and I had been in discussions with him as to what we could do for the next special anniversary. Once he had the germ of an idea, then we turned to the other artists [Adrian Tomine, Dan Clowes, and Ivan Brunetti], who actually knew and respected each other’s work, and I started a conversation with all of them. So we had a discussion board by email where we were throwing out ideas, and they kept egging each other on, and then it ended up being something where each story is free-standing but together it makes something more. 

Have you thought about having any of them do something for Toon?

Actually, Chris Ware did wonderful end papers in the Little Lit books that we did back in 2000 to 2003, when we published a version of Raw Junior, Raw for Kids, which was hardcover books for kids. After that, some other artists did stuff, such as Charles Burns and David Mazzucchelli and Maurice Sendak and Ian Falconer, some of the great authors of children’s books. But there was resistance from some of the other artists at the idea of doing something for kids, and that’s something I want to explore further, actually: That there is a kind of ghettoization of people who devote their lives to working for children. 

Why do you think that is?

I had a conversation with a colleague at the New Yorker where I was pushing and saying how come we don’t review more children’s books and more children’s literature? The only thing I can get the New Yorker to do is a yearly paper on it, but not on a regular basis. We don’t do book reviews in general, but still, we do mention books. And my colleague was bluntly saying, “Well, it’s because children’s books are not real literature.” I said, “Oh, okay. Explain that.” And he did. He said, “Well, they are geared for a specific audience, and in literature, the author writes for himself, doesn’t have a specific audience in mind. But by definition, for children, you have to know who you are writing for and you have to take into account the limitations of your reader, and that makes it genre literature, not true literature.” Now that’s interesting. To him, that’s obvious. To me, that made me realize even though it’s true we were specifically as editors trying to help the author come up with his or her best version of his strip, not worrying whether people would like it or how complex it might be, and that’s true for the New Yorker as well. When you work for kids, especially the Toon books, for example, you have to take into account the reading level, not just the age, but the vocabulary, and we work within those limitations. I even had a conversation with my husband, who wasn’t at first that interested in having to do something for kids because of those limitations. It’s only when he did it that he realized it’s akin to doing formal poetry. You have a set of limitations; you can only do your sonnet with so many beats—but then within that there is room for art.

Limitations often inspire some of the best artistic endeavors.

Yes. I think so too. I was just talking to Ivan Brunetti, who teaches a college course [at Columbia College Chicago]. For his generation of students, he’ll give them an assignment like take a piece of paper 9" by 12" and do a drawing—but you have to use it vertically. And they come back a week later, and out of the 16 students, three of them have done it horizontally. And he’ll ask, why did you do it horizontally? The assignment was to do it vertically. And they’ll say, well, I thought it looked better. Well, if you’re an illustrator and you hand in your illustration to the magazine, they’re not going to say, “Oh, let’s turn the magazine around to accommodate your picture.” This is an assignment. That’s the point. And I was talking to another artist who had this third-grade teacher he loved because every week she gave assignments, and that’s where his interest in drawing was born. Whereas his fourth-grade teacher a year later just said, “Take a piece of paper and draw whatever you want.” And he would just fall asleep on his desk.

It seems that a lot of exciting things are happening in YA comics right now. And a lot of people you wouldn’t expect to be doing kids’ books are doing them.

That’s interesting. With Bone—back in 2005, I was talking to Jeff Smith about incorporating it [at Toon Books]. He had spent 10 years doing the Bone series, and it was in black and white and self-published. I really believe in self-publishing because that’s my background, and everything I’ve done is not because any kind of corporation came around and said, “Why don’t you do this?” Quite the opposite. For example, Maus was sent out to 26 different publishers, who all rejected it before it was through a back door adopted by Pantheon. But everyone said it couldn’t be published. Little Lit with Joanna Cotler at HarperCollins was also a series of books that we did because no one else was doing it. And with Toon Books, I was talking with Jeff [in 2005] about making the Bone series a Level 4 Toon book. I have different Levels for the books we publish. Level 1 would be books like Silly Lilly or Jack in the Box—they’re in the horizontal format, four panels per page. Level 2 starts having a little more interaction between characters, such as a Benny and Penny or Stinky, with two characters and a world that’s a little broader. And Level 3 has Mo and Jo or Otto’s Orange Day or Zig and Wikki, where you get the bigger picture. At Level 3, there are chapter books. This is something the teachers really like, because they can take the book and say, “Let’s look at the cover. What do you think the story is going to be about?” And then they read the whole story and they compare the inference with what the whole experience was.

You start with the concept of “me” and then you go to “my family,” “my community,” and then eventually you can get to the 15th century and China or something, but you have to start with a very clear progression from things the kid can experience first-hand. So with this idea of doing beginning reader and having steps and progression, Bone was a perfect Level 4 because it was a whole world of characters constructed. Jeff was reluctant to have it presented as part of children’s literature because he hadn’t done it for kids, even though he was delighted to find that kids were reading it and it was accessible to kids. Similarly, when Art was first having Maus published, people would come up to him and say, “I just want to thank you because I gave your book to my 13-year-old for his bar mitzvah,” and Art thought, “Oh, my God, this is child abuse!” Now he’s really come around and realized that it’s one of the blessings of what happened in literature. When a book becomes a classic, it’s specifically because it becomes taught in schools and people encounter it at an early age, and then it’s life that transcends a fad of the moment. So whether it be Ulysses or Madame Bovary or any other grand classic where it was at one time one more book put out by a publisher that month, it became something that people encountered and read when they were kids.

For the Toon Books you release, how do you ensure appropriate age level and reading level? Especially because your books don’t talk down to kids, which must be somewhat difficult to make happen.

That’s a good question. The key point is turning to people who really know. I’ve been very lucky to have access to teachers who know this stuff. One of the teachers we have had as an advisor from the start teaches in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. She has taught the same grade for the past 20-plus years. She knows that phase of development. It’s second nature to her. She vets, and she’s ruthless! No niceties about, “Oh, what a cute little teddy bear” or whatever. Nothing like that! One bit of feedback I got from her last week is “the word easy is hard.” Okay. I didn’t realize that. It’s a hard word to read. We forget that. The word bad is easy. And good is easy. But some words are Dolch words, about 50–100 words that come up often that kids have to learn to read by sight. But the word easy is not a Dolch word, so it’s a hard word until a kid has encountered it many times. So we had to rephrase that part of the book.

The way we work is first the priority is for the artist to come up with a good story. That process is similar if not identical to working with an artist on Raw. And it’s getting the character development and the story flow and the page turns, because a lot of what I specialize in is storytelling in visual form. I’m about to bring to the printer a new Silly Lilly book. I’ve been working on that for two months, day and night. I’ll work with the artist to really get the correct storytelling. Then once I have the visual flow—and only then—I run it by the various teachers and educators who vet it for specific vocabulary. It’s similar to the work at the New Yorker, for example, where I send out a comic strip and I get feedback from the lawyer and the fact-checker and the copy editor and everything is noted. Here I have the people I work with point out the level of difficulty they find in the book. Then I go to schools with the kids who are the right age so I’m at the right reading level. It’s uncanny how good they are at reading pencil sketches. Much better than my New Yorker editors, who can’t previsualize: “Is this a sketch?” The kids have no problem.

Do you find that kids have an immediate connection to comics and drawings?

One of the things that comics do that is really great is inspire children to want to do their own story. I think the main reason is because when they read the comic book, they recognize the author’s hand. And that’s different from playing a video game or watching animation or a movie or a book that’s typeset—they don’t see it as coming from an author. So they immediately perceive the author’s voice. That’s one of the things you want them to experience, because it’s addictive. Once you get hooked on the book, you are in communion with the author and you want more of that. It’s why the kids are so in love with Jeff Smith. They want more of Jeff Smith’s work.

Children’s literature may be looked down upon by some of the tastemakers but it’s also a treasure trove of inspiration for visuals. One of the things we wanted to accomplish with Toon books, and I think we succeeded, is to make books that are at the same time innovative and classic. They feel like they have the heft and the weight of something that has been done carefully, and that’s the same trick that I used when I published Raw magazine. I wanted comics to be taken seriously. I figured if I do a magazine that’s well printed and has a tactile quality that has a museum kind of feeling to it, it will force people to hold it in a different way. It will change their grasp of what the work is. Similarly with the Toon books, one of my favorite moments is to see a little kid holding the book to her chest and then petting the UV gloss and feeling the raised areas of the type on the cover, because there is something in the kid that realizes that she’s not looked down upon, this is done for her and this is done with utmost care, with total respect for the reader. So part of it is not assuming all kids can’t understand complicated storytelling or emotionally complex stories, because quite the opposite—they are such exquisitely attentive readers. That’s why I go to schools, because they find things that my adult editors can’t. They really do. They are attuned to the story. And to give them a very well produced object, I think, communicates how carefully we want them to look at the book.

Why did you see a need for Toon two years ago, when you started the imprint?

When I did Raw, it was because I fell in love first with my husband and then by extension all the comics he loved, old comics, and especially the possibility of comics. He was working on Breakdowns when I met him in 1976. I wanted to communicate what I saw in him. I witnessed him going around to magazines and saying, “You should use my comics.” I wanted to produce the object that could demonstrate what comics could do with European comics as well as what there was here. I felt that most of those goals that I had back in 1980 have been accomplished. When I went to the New Yorker, it was wonderful to discover this whole new world of picture making. I have done over 850 covers in the past 17 years, but I was itching to do more. With the magazine, I only have the art. I like objects where I can do everything at once. That’s what really gets me out of the bed in the morning. With printing, we can think of something, design it, edit it, produce it, and then end up with a little object that you can pet. Where you have controlled every aspect of it. I actually studied architecture before discovering graphic art, and part of the pleasure that I take in book making is a direct consequence of the frustration I felt as an architectural student. An architect should be able to control every aspect of a building, but the reality is very different. I mean, you can think and dream whatever you want as architectural student. You are highly unlikely to ever, ever get something that you can control to such an extent. So I love making books. And after having two kids, I wanted to give children something classic to read.

Why did you target this particular age group?

In kindergarten, both boys and girls are reading. Then there’s a point between first and second grade where girls keep reading things like The Babysitter’s Club and books that have a lot to do with the relationships between the characters. But boys drop precipitously somewhere around second grade because there’s nothing for them to read, because they’re not interested in those types of books. There’s a gap right there. That gap is actually fillable by comics. Take Captain Underpants, for example. Boys become interested in that kind of gross-out storytelling, but it’s discouraged. Teachers have said to me, it’s not that boys don’t read; it’s that they don’t read what we think they should be reading.

Do you think the attitude against comics is changing in that regard?

I’m doing everything I can! I realized that there was a radical shift needed here. Comics and graphics are more accepted. Art got a Pulitzer Prize. Gene Yang got a National Book Award for American Born Chinese. And Toon Books got the Geisel! All of those boundaries are changing in terms of what comics can and cannot do in the adult world. But it’s creating a new problem, which is, as much as Art and I used to say comics aren’t just for kids, we now have to say comics are not just for adults.

Did you have a business plan for Toon when you started?

Was I supposed to have a business plan? I didn’t know! You know, I never went to business school, so I’ve been winging it. Once thing that was fantastic for me is that I got rejected by everybody. It was such a blessing because starting in 2004 I went to HarperCollins, who was publishing some Little Lit, I went to Random House, Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin, Hyperion, Scholastic, everybody in town, and I proposed the Toon books. Everybody turned me down, saying it’s a great idea, it’s beautifully realized,  we wish we could do it but we can’t because it’s a new category. Someone at Random House explained to me how they started their Beginning Reader books line. It took them eight years and countless millions of dollars just to create a new category in the distribution system because in children’s books, like in the fashion field or the arts, the salesperson walks into the store and says, “I have a book that’s EXACTLY like last year’s bestseller.” That’s how you sell a book. You don’t say this is something new. You don’t say this is something that they have never seen before. I understand the issue, but I got to the point where I was backed into having to publish myself. And that was such a blessing because I came out with my first three books in the spring of 2008. Had I been published by a major corporation, I would have had three books out in the spring of 2008 and probably the three book I did in the fall of 2008. Then starting in 2009 they would have started worrying, and then sometime around September of 2009, the CEO would have put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know, Francoise, you saw we gave it our all. Your books are wonderful and we’re really sorry that we have to do this, but we have to cut off the whole program.” Why? Because a year and a half later, it wouldn’t have had the time to expand into being hundreds of thousands of copies, and I would have been the last thing they brought in; they would have easily been able to stop that effort. So instead of sitting here with you celebrating our Geisel Award, we would have gotten the award for companies that stopped existing. They would have cut up the imprint, saying it’s too much to keep going in the midst of a depression.

What do you think Toon books demonstrate or accomplish in the marketplace?

That there’s more than one format to comics. Just because Maus opened up the field that’s not the only field. With the Toon books, it’s specifically clear for us that we can’t just do something about comics for kids in general. That’s why we wanted a narrow wedge. We felt if we can get kids 6, 7, 8 years old to like books and read comics, then the 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds will take care of themselves. Those kids will find Bone on their own. They’ll find Diary of a Wimpy Kid. They’ll find all of the other possible books that are being published. From 9 to 12 is a prime age for comics already. You don’t need to turn reality around and fight so much there, because the kids can find it on their own. What’s hard is at the beginner age, because a child by definition doesn’t know how to read and doesn’t have pocket money; he or she can’t like a book on his or her own. Then you see the adult grabbing it away, so you have to get the adult not grabbing it away. You have to get them to buy it for the child and give it to them to read. We’ll get there.