Geoffrey Hayes, Benny and Penny: Just Pretend; Jay Lynch and Frank Cammuso, Otto's Orange Day; Agnés Rosenstiehl, Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons (Toon Books, 2008); $12.95 each, hardcover.
By Jared Gardner
A few years ago at the Cartoon Research Festival here in Columbus, I had the honor of driving Art Spiegelman around looking for cheap cigarettes (and the pleasure of indulging myself in my old vice for a few hours). I told him how much my family loved the Little Lit books he and his wife François Mouly had been editing, and I asked him if there were plans for any other projects along those lines, particularly for the younger set. All of a sudden, the joy of finding cigarettes for under 3 bucks a pack wore off and Spiegelman glumly told me about their vain experiences trying to sell Scholastic, which had just begun publishing Jeff Smith’s Bone in colorized trade paperbacks, on the idea of a series directed toward the earliest readers. Four years later, there are no cheap cigarettes to be had in my fair city (although I suspect they are still a lot cheaper than the 10 bucks he is paying in NYC), but Spiegelman and Mouly’s vision for a series of graphic narrative books directed at the youngest readers has come to pass. The publisher is TOON Books (an imprint of RAW Junior), and the volumes are a treat well worth the long wait.
So far three volumes have been published, with three more on the way for Autumn. And by all accounts they are selling very well, proving Mouly and Spiegelman right in their predictions for this market. The first three are Benny and Penny by veteran children’s book author Geoffrey Hayes; Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons by French writer/artist Agnés Rosenstiehl, and Otto’s Orange Day by underground comix vet Jay Lynch and political cartoonist Frank Cammuso. The books are beautifully packages and printed, showing a deep love and respect both for the medium and its readers. It is hard not to envision a new generation of comics readers growing up with these books coming to expect and demand literate, beautiful graphic narratives, no longer associating in the knee-jerk way of their parents comics and the lowest common denominator.
My own kids, who are already such readers having been beaten and bullied by their father into this enlightened world-view, grabbed the books with great excitement, even though both of them are older than the target audience for the volumes. For my youngest, Otto’s Orange Day was the most exciting of the two. He loved the visual energy and nods toward Disney’s Aladdin and the Eye Spy-like interactive puzzle. And while the moral of the book (variety is good) goes back to Bread and Jam for Frances and any number of followers it still rings true. My eldest especially liked Benny and Penny, the story of an older brother who is doing everything he can to avoid ruining his game of Pirates by including his younger sister. Again, the lesson is familiar, but it is beautifully told and deeply personal. Hayes has been a big favorite around my house for years (mostly for his magnificent Otto and Uncle Tooth books), but he is rarely so gentle and emotionally direct as in this lovely story.
The one book that left everyone a bit cool in my house was Silly Lilly, but I suspect that the problem lies more in the intended audience, which seems to me a bit younger than the other two. My youngest son complained that the book would have been better has Rosenstiehl not divided the short book up into four sketches (corresponding to the seasons). So fragmented and already so sparse in text and relatively repetitious visually, there just wasn’t much for him to connect to (or his dad either, although I enjoyed the understated rhythms and texture of the book).
Taken as a whole or individually, this series is a cause for celebration for all who love graphic narrative, picture books and the kids who shall inherit their worth. RAW, Little Lit and now Toon Books: the debt we owe Spiegelman and Mouly for their editorial work in promoting literate comics for strange adults and oddball kids continues to grow. Now if we could just get them to develop some prenatal imaging technology, we could start working on the little ones before they’ve even entered this sinful world of ours. Of course, the generation raised on Toon Books will no doubt be up for that challenge.