TOONBooks: Interview with Francoise Mouly

Feature Image: TOON Books.

For an excellent introduction to graphic novels, or heck, reading at all, TOON Books has you covered. TOON Books was founded by Françoise Mouly as an alternative to Easy Readers. For the uninitiated, Easy Readers are beginner level books that break dialogue and storyline down to the equivalent of caveman grunts. Think “see Spot run. Now see Spot eat bone.” They are written with simplicity for all the newbies but are painfully dull for everyone involved. This is especially tragic since the noobs are usually kids learning how to read. In the past decade, attempts have been made to remedy this format by authors like Erica Silverman, Mo Willems, and Eric Litwin. But has it been enough? The answer is no.tippynightparadeMouly realized the entire Easy Reader genre needed to be revamped when she began to teach her kids how to read. She was disappointed in the options available and proposed a comic based Easy Reader format to several publishing companies. Like the stubborn, crusty killjoys they are, the major publishers turned her down. This didn’t stop Marvelous Mouly. Instead she developed the idea herself.
mayaHer approach turned out to be genius. The books are in graphic novel format and are written by a wide variety of cartoonists and authors (including Lilli Carré, Agnès Rosenstiehl, Art Spiegelman, and her daughter Nadja Spiegelman). Each page is one or two comic book panels with simple vocabulary and engaging narratives. The series is broken down into three levels with 1 as the easiest and 3 as the most challenging. Each book is a work of art that kid or adult learners can dig. Plus, the website offers a cartoon maker, literacy exercises, lesson plans, and tips for Mom and Dad. The thing is, these can be enjoyed by anybody. They’re beautiful! And funny! Even heartwarming.wetballoonWe’ve established that these are fun reads created by talented writers, and we can all agree that comic books are a fantastic entry point for encouraging literacy. But what message do these books send? How female friendly are they for our girl littluns?pennySo far there have been thirty titles released and half of the TOON Books feature spunky girl main characters (or as one plucky half of a dynamic duo). The other fifteen titles have male leads, but only a handful are completely devoid of female characters. The majority of stories have positive female protagonists with empowering storylines. With Mouly’s feminist background we are safe trusting that the TOON Books will remain girl friendly. I was lucky enough to interview Françoise Mouly earlier this week. It is included here as a transcript rather than an audio file to spare everyone from hearing my fangirl hysterics (it was Chris Farley Show-esque). Feast your eyes on her eloquent answers:

Growing up in France, was your experience learning how to read as a kid different from the system that your kids went through in New York City?

It was very different. First of all, in France kids are scholarised much earlier. I entered school at three or so and there were a lot of games and visual things that I grew up with. Also, all of the kidsincluding myselfwould devour the comic albums whenever we went to each others’ houses. Not just the Tintin. They were part of the generation’s aesthetics and when [comic books] came along they were bestsellers in France. Not bestselling comics but actual bestsellers. Grownups were reading them as well.

A lot of the jokes that were in them actually only make sense when you’ve had six years of Latin. When I was a kid, I’m showing my age here, but everybody… had six years of Latin. So jokes about all of the Latin homework were hilarious. I wonder how it reads to kids nowadays. [Laughs] Probably its not as mandatory as it was at the time. I’m sure it’s still funny but less funny if you haven’t struggled with memorizing your Jerome’s and all the other stuff I’ve probably forgotten.

But you didn’t actually own that many albums because we all shared them, so you made sure to ask for different ones for your birthday or Christmas. Reading comics was a big part of growing up as a kid and also as a young adult. When I first came to New York-I learned English at school but it didn’t do me any goodwhen I arrived I needed to know the language and one of the things I started looking for was comic books. In France there were a lot of comics and comics magazines on the news-stand and when I didn’t see any [here] that’s actually how my life changed. At the time, I was introduced to what was happening in a very tiny corner of the scene in California and in avant-garde comics, and that’s how I discovered Art’s work, and that’s how I fell in love with his work and his comics in general, and later fell in love with him. But comics were very marginal here, which was a surprise for me.

So that’s common for French children to learn how to read from comics?

It was not separated. When my daughter and son were little I was reading to them in French. I spoke French to them and I didn’t want to switch to English at reading time. So we read through all of the French comics for young kids. There’s plenty of them. That’s one of the things that carried us through with both kids. I would come back [from France] with suitcases of albums and kids comics.

Also we would check them out at the library and also read them in the bookstores, because not only are there plenty [of comics] in the bookstores, but they let kids sit and read them on the floor. It’s kind of a need to be able to sit there and read what you can when you can’t wait until they’re bought and you have them home with you. There’s a lot of that that still continues with contemporary children having the stories that they grew [up] with. There’s not as much prejudice against images and now textbooks are heavily illustrated with images.

When you are a kid [images] are not seen as something that would distract or prevent a young child from becoming literate. This is something that I encountered in the United States, that somehow it is a bore. That visual readers are somehow going to distract from reading the words, as opposed to the way that I understand it, which is that the two go together. The pleasure of reading is actually from the interaction, especially when you are reading comics. It’s not just reading the text, but what’s really attractive and what really makes your mind work is how some of the jokes and some of the contentthe meaningis given in the picture itself. It’s a very sophisticated way to give meaning.

There are some [visual] cultures, takefor exampleJapan; it is a very visual culture and people are always drawing things out for you. If you ask someone in Japan how to get somewhere they immediately pull out a paper and pen and start drawing you a map. People are very regularly making use of pictures, and manga is a big deal in Japan as well. Adults read them and it’s not seen as a ghetto [part] of the culture. It’s taken seriously. It’s the same in France where comics artists are very respected and are considered cultural icons on the same level as literary writers or rock musicians. They are not placed on a different scale.

Very cool. It’s interesting that in the United States people draw a distinction when we teach kids with picture books but not with comic books. That’s never made sense to me.

Yes, that is true. Children’s books have two prizes, the Caldecott and Newbery. And somehow if you’re considering a book for the Newbery you should look at the text regardless of the pictures, and if you’re considering a book for the Caldecott you should look at the pictures regardless of the text. Even in the publishing industry, often some picture books for children are prevented from being manuscripts without any consideration of the pictures. They are acquired and considered as if the two are separate. If that had been the case back in the ’40s you would never have had Dr. Seuss. You would never have acquired that manuscript as a typed text. It wouldn’t make any sense.

[It’s the] same thing with some of the most profound and influential children’s books, many of them done by cartoonists. Ian Falconer would never have been considered. He is an artist that was published for the first time on the cover of the New Yorker and then went on to do the Olivia books. When he was first presenting it to a publisher he was told “we don’t publish books by artists, but we can have you illustrate someone else’s book.” Fortunately, he stuck to his guns, kept his manuscript, and eventually found someone who was willing to publish his work. That book wouldn’t have been published with the conditions that were in place at that time, and the same thing [goes] with William Steig’s work. With any of those books, or even Shrek (which is at this time a cultural icon), the text integrates with the picture. But that has something to do with the fact that the critical vocabulary is much more in place to discuss written words than to discuss pictures.

People often don’t have art classes inside school. All kids draw, but they are kind of discouraged to continue with their drawing. That is relatively recent. There used to be a time where they cultivated man to read, write, draw, play the piano, embroidera number of activities that were all artistic or creative that weren’t ghettoized. Not one of them was elevated above the others. People with artistic creativity could put it into embroidering, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not any lesser than writing poetry. It’s a different form of expression.

Anyway, don’t get me started on that topic [laughs]. But that’s part of what were doing with TOON Books, [we’re] giving the parents and the child the reading experience. That’s why we love it when there are parents that actually enjoy reading the books. It’s much harder to read the comics out loud because you have to act out the text and the pictures. It’s more like putting on a little play. You must do the facial expression and the intonation and raise your voice when the character is raising their voice and be happy when they’re happy. You are expressing so many nuances of the reading that its much more of a reading experience with the kid. That’s what works well.

Yeah, and that’s great because there is so much performance involved with reading books to kids. The images add a lot to it.

Yeah, and I think that’s definitely what makes it such a good and important medium. Because sure, that’s one thing if you like sitting in concerts with your kid and watching the same thing. That is better than leaving them alone, you can share activities. But in reading a book, it’s really a way to inhabit a world together. Right now my children are adults, but when I hear them read aloud I can hear their dad’s voice. They really learned so much from being read to. It’s clearly the voice that they heard as kids and it’s part of them at this point. Reading is a marvelous thing to share with a kid.

Another thing is that TOON Books are a great entry point for any adults that are learning how to read. Are there any plans for TOON Books to gear a level towards adult readers?

Actually, in so many ways that is already available. Because we don’t make a distinction in terms of adult or children’s readers. I have had to fight prejudice that books for kids are simplistic. I spent the first twenty years of my life reading comics that weren’t for kids. From my husband’s book, which was never meant for children, to Raw Magazine, and I wouldn’t say that comics for children are any easier.

If anything, it is a much harder discipline than doing work for adults. I think that it is akin to doing poetry in a fixed form rather than when you have less constraints. And you have to be careful about vocabulary and keep in mind that there shouldn’t be too many references outside of the book itself. A lot of it has to be self-contained. It’s not a matter of doing a tongue-in-cheek, ironic take. A lot of times people think that they are being clever by doing parodic versions of adult materials…

I think, actually, to tell a story first hand is very hard. Kids are incredibly demanding readers. [They are] so attentive. That’s why we go and read our books in schools, because as much attention as we give it we find that nothing gets past the kids. They see all of the details and the whole. The questions they ask are the most perceptive questions.

For the child readers there’s not much of a difference between the story of the book and what really happened. Such as “why is your character being so mean?” This is truly the question. It’s not like you can say “oh, there’s this advanced plot” or whatever. This question about the reality of that character gets to the truth of the story.

It’s a good discipline, and I think that it works when we do the books in different languages. It’s the multimodal part of the comics that make them a really great point of entry into a language. You get all of those ancillary clues. Again, facial expression, intonation, the way people are dressed, their body gesturesall of this gives context in which you can understand the words. It’s much richer than just reading the words alone. It’s almost as if you were reading it, hearing it, seeing it, and smelling it. That’s really useful for people reading foreign languages. Again, that is how I got to comics myself…

There is some level at which it is useful for the parents and the educators to see things labeled in terms of Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3, so to that extent there is a progression in the number of words, difficulty of the vocabulary, number of pictures to the page, and so on. But that being said, there are readers that really love our books, and, even so, if they want comics they might avoid what seems to be a babyish book. The fact that we don’t give an age range on it helps encourage an intuitive point of entry.

I think there is the same thing with adult readers that are coming into literacy. Sometimes, children’s books will also be helpful because they are not referencing a whole other body of written material. If they’re well done, you don’t want to say it’s “Reading for Dummies” or label it with an age. You don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it, because the readers try something out at their own level. At some point, we were given this really useful formulaI was surprised at how precise it was. Basically, a reader who is still acquiring literacy will find something that is about 85% of their comprehension level because if it’s only 50% she’s going to get discouraged and if its 100% she’s not going to progress. For the young readerhow old is your kid?

I have one daughter, she’s one year old, but we read all the time. [laughs]

That’s so nice, that’s so great. I think it’s one of the things that kids really love is their parent’s enjoyment of reading. That becomes so inhabited, it is like second nature. It’s a great gift for her.

One last question for you. What were your favorite comic books or books when you were a kid?

In the fall of 2014, I’m going to publish a collection of my favorite comics from when I was a kid. I’m going to publish them for the first time in the United States. It’s a French collection called “By an Artist in France.” It’s fantasy as well as Lewis Carroll inspired comic strips. The first album of it will come out as a Toon Graphic.

It’s great to be able to publish something from when you were a child yourself that you remember vividly. When I was a kid, my parents didn’t read that much and I just read for pleasure. We didn’t have television, believe it or not. Television existed but it was in the living room and it was locked with a key. [laughs] That was very common then. It had a little door with a key that my parents kept. It certainly wasn’t for the children. It was a once in a while thing where everyone would sit in the living room and watch TV. I mostly grew up with books and comics, some of which exist in the United States and many of which don’t. But one hopes that they will be [available] as the field of kids comics expands.

Great! I can’t wait to read that.

We’ll have to make sure to make books for you to read.

Yes, please!

It took me about an hour stop pacing and fist pumping after that interview. Seriously, go check out these books!

Romona Williams

Romona Williams

Romona Williams is an ex-librarian, current tutor, and constant writer. She can usually be found in antiquarian bookstores, curiosity shops, and carnivals after dark.