by Julie Reiters

Earlier this week, TOON Books hosted the 2010 Book Expo America Drink and Draw at Books of Wonder in NYC.  Two easels, great food and wine, and a roomful of children’s book enthusiasts made for a memorable evening.  Attendees ranged from established authors to new readers, making age no object at this fun event.

Geoffrey Hayes (author and illustrator, Benny & Penny), Dean Haspiel (illustrator, Mo and Jo: Fighting Together Forever), Nadja Spiegleman (author, Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework), and Trade Loeffler (illustrator, Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework) took turns at the easels drawing the familiar faces of TOON Books characters.  Other guests were free to draw alongside them and create any kind of character or scene they wished!  Cartoonist Nick Abadzis adorned one of our easels with a fantastic astronaut dog, and a TOON Books reader was seen drawing a speedy-looking car. Despite the spread of scrumptious hor d’oeuvres on the other side of the room, the drawings attracted quite a crowd.  Editorial Director Francoise Mouly was delighted by the impressive turnout and support for TOON Books.  Book sellers, distributors, and librarians alike were eager to learn more about the philosophy behind our unique kind of storytelling.

As the event came to a close, some of the remaining guests migrated to the perimeter of the room.  At any other party, this might be taken for a sign of boredom—not so at the Drink and Draw!  Attendees paused their conversations to flip through the pages of our 12 titles, including the soon-to-be-released Silly Lilly in What Will I Be Today? at our table stocked with books, catalogs, and giveaways.  The 2010 BEA Drink and Draw delivered.  There was drinking, drawing, and a whole lot more!

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by Julia Phillips

Last week, we dared to call our TOON early readers “comics” — and, boy, did you ever take us up on that dare!  Paula Willey was one of the first to respond to our quest to lift our titles out of the “graphic novels” section of bookstores and libraries and into the “easy readers” section where we believe they belong.  She wrote:

Except for the short long ones (Jack and the Box, Silly Lilly) we shelve them in kids’ graphic novels. I think it’s a good spot. Older readers pick them up sometimes and enjoy them – they’re easy and funny – and when we lead younger readers over to those shelves to get Luke on the Loose and Zig and Wikki, they get a gander at the longer books that they have to look forward to. It helps that our kids’ graphic novel section is centrally located and not off in some hideaway.

TOON Editorial Director Françoise Mouly applauded this argument for focusing not on divisive semantics but on the issue really at stake.  How do we make sure these books reach their intended and appropriate audience?  A centrally-located “kids’ graphic novel” section is ideal for making sure the right material reaches the right kids, and an involved librarian ensures this shelving approach’s effectiveness.  “It’s a wonderful point of entry,” said Françoise.

Over at School Library Journal, Betsy Bird asked her readers where they shelve their TOON Books.  “As easy reading comic titles,” she wrote, “they sort of fall between two categories.  Here at NYPL we put ours in the graphic novel section, but that’s a bit unfortunate.  As Toon Books points out, novels these ain’t.”  Educators’ responses poured into the comments section:

“If I had my say, I’d shelve all the Toon books with easy readers, but the people who do our cataloging put some in easy reader and some in picture books. Confusing I think….I like to point people to picture books for read-together-and-share type needs, and to easy readers for kids actually reading on their own, and the Toon books are much more useful as the latter, so that would be less confusing. We don’t have a juvenile graphic novels section — everything is mixed in. For some reason the director is dead set against putting them in their own section.”

“I put the Toon books as Easy Readers, it does cause heartburn in the branches but I think it is important folks know Easy Reader is not a size. Our J Graphic novel collection is from 2nd to 5th grade so they could go there. I am often influenced by how the books is BISACed in Ingram and B&T.”

“Our Toon books are in graphic novels — it’s a huge mishmash, but we’ve gotten several compliments on how many GNs we have for the younger set, so people are finding them.”

At the Comics Worth Reading blog, Johanna Draper Carlson wrote that “the Toon publications are graphic novels because they’re stand-alone stories in substantial bindings intended to be stocked long-term, instead of more disposable temporary issues. The generally accepted term for such books are ‘graphic novels’, because comics, rightly or wrongly, have other connotations.”  She’s entirely right to say that the term “graphic novels” has become the go-to descriptor for any paneled work, and that “comics” connotes something…else.  Still, it may have come time to update our collective vocabulary.  “Graphic novels” as an umbrella term was useful when there were only a handful of hardbound comic works, but now we have hundreds of publications that address dozens of genres, styles, and intended audiences.  There are romances, memoirs, short pieces, illustrated poems, war stories — there are early readers now — so let’s begin to call them all by their true names.

The issue of shelving is not a simple question with a simple answer, but a long and complicated debate.  We’d love to hear your thoughts and feature them here.  Where do YOUR TOON titles belong?

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by Julia Phillips

Last week, our office was delighted to receive a visit from Zak Foster, winner of Strand Bookstore’s Tote Bag Design Contest, which TOON Books co-sponsored this spring.

Zak’s visit was a joy: he came both in his capacity as a talented young artist and as an engaged teacher at Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He brought a small group of his students along for the afternoon, and it was thrilling to see how bold and brave these high-schoolers were, as they sketched the New York City skyline for us on scraps of paper around the office, read the Japanese posters on the walls, and asked TOON artist Geoffrey Hayes how to plot comic story lines.

Zak and his students met Françoise Mouly, TOON’s Editorial Director, for lunch at the New Yorker‘s office in midtown Manhattan.  As she gave them a tour of the magazine and explained how the publication is constructed each week, one student, Daniel, stopped and pointed to a gigantic aerial map of New York City that was posted on an office wall.  ”Here we are,” he told the rest of the group.  Sure enough, under his finger lay the exact location of the building where they currently stood — he’d found it after only a glance. We have to congratulate Zak doubly, then.  Not only does he create his own exceptional designs, but he also fosters in his students the same strength of visual literacy that TOON works to promote in a new generation of readers!

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by Julia Phillips

Chris Wilson, editor of The Graphic Classroom, recently introduced a classroom of second-grade students to the educational tools found in the TOON Book Reader.  Chris and his students read Otto’s Orange Day with the aid of the Reader’s voice narration, discussed their reactions to the book, and posted comments anonymously on their classroom blog. We were so thrilled to read Chris’ thoughtful, intelligent account of comics use in the classroom that we just had to find out more:

We really admire your successful marriage of engaging comics and educational classroom time.  What led you to combine your interests in teaching and comics?

It was luck, really. I was not a comic reader growing up for three reasons: (1) Reading was slow and hard for me. I avoided it at all costs, (2) I was turned off by a lot of the art style and colorings of comics [and] (3) I fell prey to the “comics are not real reading” stereotype…I didn’t want to read anything as a kid. It was too hard…

As an adult, I had a good friend, Larry, who [had] read Spidey and Teen Titans from early childhood…Larry was a reader of traditional books because of his early engagement with comics. When my daughter was born, it occurred to me that I wanted my daughter to love the things I enjoyed, I wanted her to become a better reader than I had been as a kid (or adult for that matter), and that I harbored many unfair and untrue perceptions about comics.

…Years later, I decided to become a teacher and I relied on my personal experience to guide my interests…I went back to school to get my teaching certification and my master’s degree in education.  I knew what I wanted to write my graduate paper on. The first thing I did was meet with the graduate advisor and ask permission to write my thesis on the use of comics in the classroom. She approved excitedly and I enrolled and started The Graphic Classroom immediately so that I could build a knowledge base.

How much support does your school’s administration extend in the use of comics as classroom tools?

My principal, school board, superintendent and other administrators are very supportive of my use of comics. The research regarding comics and reading motivation is solid and I used that information to support my endeavors. I was assured that I would be able to use my comics in my classroom so long as our curricular standards are being met. Upon being hired, I immediately asked for permission to start the Hall of Heroes comic book club for fourth graders. The effect that club has had on the students is significant. [The] impact of comics has been significant enough that grade level teachers have asked to use my comics in their classrooms. I’ve even had teachers from other buildings ask me to come to their classrooms and teach their elementary students about comics.

How did you first find the resources available in Professor Garfield and the TOON Reader Library?

We at The Graphic Classroom have been dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetic supporters of TOON Books and Professor Garfield. When I first heard of TOON Books, I could not wait get my hands on them. Emergent reader comics were hard, if not impossible, to come by at the time. After reading my first TOON Book, I knew I had to read all of these books and get them into the hands of early childhood educators.

In the fall of 2009, I received a phone call from a Professor Garfield staffer about the website. He sat on the phone with me and took me through the site. It wasn’t a week until I started using it with grades K-2 in my building. We started reading the TOON Books comics, but expanded to using the extensive phonics and story sequence activities, and the comics creators.

You wrote on your blog that your thesis research led you to believe that kids have a high reading motivation for comics.  Why do you think comics provoke this response in children?

Research also demonstrates when students choose their own reading, comics consistently rate in their top three choices. Choice, it turns out, is a significant factor in the reading motivation of students. Interestingly enough, many educators are highly reluctant to allow students choice in reading. I suspect this is because we educators have our own notions of what consists of “real reading”.

Entire chapters and books have been written on the subject of comics and motivation, but when we boil things down we have a duality of image and text that allows students more than one way to decode the story. Comics are less daunting (although not less difficult or important) and they are more engaging to a visually stimulated population. Comics lovers tend to be prolific readers of traditional books…Why? Comics promote a love of reading in kids and adults. When a person falls into the honey pot of reading for love, then an entire world of literature (prose, poetry, newspapers, magazines, blogs) comes alive. When kids have a reason to read, they will seek out engaging stories in nearly any format.

As a parent, how do you encourage your daughter’s appreciation for appropriate and educational comics?

My daughter has her own comic box in her room. She gets her own comics from the comic shop. I talk with her about comics and I entice her by selling her on stories I think she will connect with. I also talk with her about and promote the reading of traditional novels, poetry, magazines and other forms of word and story. We also see a lot of movies and watch some television shows together. We love quoting movies and TV shows.

My daughter also sees my wife and I read weekly if not nightly. I read comics, poetry and fiction, while my wife reads mostly nonfiction. When she was born, my wife and I were committed to a home that promoted reading. I do seek out female-oriented comics for my daughter and my students. It is important to me that girls are equally represented in my educational efforts. I read those comics, too, and talk with the girls about them.

It was fascinating for us to hear Chris, both as an academic and as an involved father, share his thoughts on kids’ comics.  As much as we love hearing from bloggers, parents, and teachers, though, nothing beats hearing kids themselves comment on TOON Books. We’re so grateful to Chris for giving his second-graders the blogging platform to publish their thoughts, and we gathered a few of our favorites to share with you:

I liked Otto’s Orange Day it was fantastic. Because I like orange to. I liked his singing. I liked the genies bling –bling. I recommend this book for all second graders.

I liked Otto’s orange Day . I liked Otto’s song. I liked the Genie because he is tricky. I liked when the lizard was orange .I recommend this book for all students.
by FrogMan

I liked his song. Every thing was orange. Alert be awere for the orange crime. I Recommend.
By. Underdog.

I like wian otto sat wat pashsikl. I ilke ant Sile iee swrieha. I like that gene to. Ta gene hat pesa
(No name listed)
(Translation: I liked when Otto said “what popsicle”. I like Aunt Sally Lee’s …. I like that genie, too. The genie ate pizza.)

Here’s an adorably ambivalent one:

I don’t like Otto’s Orange Day. I like genie. I like bling bling. I like otto. I don’t like it but want all kids read it.
by freddychainsaw

Well, we can’t please them all, try as we might, but I suppose we’re satisfied with the compromise of having “all kids” read this book.  Still, we’ll have to go with second-grader “Weirdo500″‘s review as the final word on this book:

I thought Otto’s Orange Day was fabulous. I liked how the genie wanted pacific words. I thought that the song was funky. I also loved how Otto was coloring the future. I recommend that teachers should get Otto’s Orange Day.
by: Weirdo500

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by Ngoc Huynh

We’ve created a Benny and Penny blog for emerging readers on our website. The interactive blog features the mice characters from creator Geoffrey Hayes. Hayes, author and illustrator, is the 2010 winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!

Content on the blog is designed specifically for emerging readers. The vocabulary, visuals, and activities target the needs of early reading and writing. Parents and children can tune in every Monday for a great new story with Benny, Penny and their friends in a weekly comic strip. Visit the blog every Wednesday for a new cartoon featuring a caption contest. The author will post the best captions the following week.

Additional fun activities include:

  • Write to the author in the comments section and he will personally answer them.
  • Click on the weekly comic strip to download and print out for coloring.
  • Cut the panels out, scramble them up and put them back in order.
  • Read and reread the archives anytime.
  • Brainstorm ideas for captions.
  • Send us your drawings and writings and the author will highlight them on the blog.

Hayes is looking forward to meeting his fans on the blog.

“It broadens Benny and Penny’s world and gives children something to look forward to,” said Hayes. “It’s a great way for the kids to be in touch with the author and learn and have fun at the same time. It’s also something that parents and children can do together on a weekly basis.”

Visit the new blog with your early reader today!

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by Julia Phillips

Since March, we’ve had the great fortune of partnering with the New York City School Library System in order to organize “TOON In…A Comics in the Schools Initiative.”  The initiative is designed to increase students’ visual literacy by giving teachers free TOON Books and encouraging them to design lesson plans.  Once teachers began filling out our response form, we were intrigued by the comments they volunteered.  One teacher suggested:

We can also call them- Graphic Novels-the title “comics” @ this stage would not go well (once again-@ this Early stage in the initiative).

This suggestion came on the heels on a Washington Post review of Benny and Penny in The Toy Breaker in an article on “remarkable new kids’ graphic novels.”  We were fascinated by these comments on categorization.  On one hand, we value educators’ insights enormously; every book we make is is carefully vetted throughout its conception to ensure that it meets teachers’ standards.  We will never, therefore, disregard feedback from a teacher or parent who knows what best supports their children.

On the other hand, the TOON books are clearly not graphic novels.  Our longest books are 40 pages.  All our titles employ vocabulary appropriate for children younger than nine years old. Indeed, since our publishing house’s founding in 2008, we’ve struggled to lift our titles out of the “graphic novels” section of bookstores and libraries and into the “easy readers” section where we believe they belong.

Perhaps the disconnect between the categories of “comics” and “graphic novels” arises from our unwillingness, as readers, to assign a book we love deeply to a category we may find shallow.  Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman have worked tirelessly since starting RAW in 1980 to establish comics as a worthwhile medium in its own right.  The term “graphic novel” may have been a useful euphemism 30 years ago (it didn’t hurt when if was applied to MAUS, first published in book form in 1986), but we may have reached a point where it confuses rather than clarifies.

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by Julia Phillips

Testimonials from parents, educators and bloggers have been pouring into the TOON Books office lately, and we’re so proud of the reactions our kids’ comics elicit that we have to share some with you.  For two years, after all, we’ve promised our audience that the comic format of TOON titles is not just perfect for early readers but especially fit for children termed “reluctant readers.”  (This blanket term refers to kids who struggle with finding books they like or that they can even read.  As Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney explains, of course, this term often is simply “a code word for ‘boys.’”)  We have always believed that comics contain a thrilling, multi-modal language that is uniquely able to enthrall boys, who may otherwise be isolated from the soft, pink, shimmery world of children’s literature like The Babysitter’s Club, and children with learning difficulties who might have difficulty grasping the unconnected words and images in standard picture books.  Experts like Barbara Tversky, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, have attested to comics’ power.  Now parents are vouching for kids’ comics, too!

Karin McGaughey wrote in to say: “My son, Roy, was an early talker.  At the age of 20 months, he used 10x the words that the baby books said he should know.  But when he got to school, reading was a different matter.  By the time he got to second grade, where he had 1/2 hour of reading every night as his homework, he would get so frustrated that he literally said, ‘I HATE reading!’  His school had him tested and found out that he has pretty severe visual processing issues.  He’s started working with a special ed teacher.   A few weeks ago, we were on our way out the door to go to school, and he said he forgot something.   He ran back in the house and grabbed Stinky.  He said he wanted to read it in the car on the way to school.  I was so happy I almost cried.  He loves the humor and the story.  The comic format really helps him decode the meaning of the words when he is stuck on something.   We have several other books from TOON Books and Roy loves them.  Thank you guys!”

Blogger Danigirl’s young boys poring over the new TOON releases.

Danigirl, a blogger from Ottawa, recently posted about her boys’ enthusiasm for the newest season of TOON Books, Benny and Penny in the Toy Breaker and Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework.  She says, “We’d stopped at the mail box on our habitual after-dinner walk, and the boys were delighted to hear that [the] new books had arrived. We didn’t even make it into the house…Tristan had read Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework by the time they crawled into bed that night while Beloved and Simon (in senior kindergarten) read Benny and Penny in The Toy Breaker together. These are wonderful little books! They’re hardcover, intelligent, well-drawn and engaging — what else could you possibly want from a book?  When I asked Tristan what he liked best about Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework, he said he liked the story and found the animal facts at the end of the book very interesting. He was quite concerned, in fact, that I might give away his copy by mistake — he wanted to make sure he could keep it so he could read it again later.”

“If your child is a beginning reader,” Danigirl writes, ” you know how empowering it is for a child to be able to read an entire book on his or her own.”  And it’s even more of a joy to hear that child ask to read a book over and over again.  Elementary-school teacher Darsa Morrow knows that feeling well; she writes on her blog about her kindergartner that “A few months ago, Toby checked out Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes from the school library. He (or we) read it at least once a day for two weeks…It wasn’t until we got the third book, Benny and Penny in The Toy Breaker, that I realized these were comic books. I know, it is hardly a surprise that kids like comic books. Max was very into the Bone series for a while…and both Max and Toby love all of my old Calvin and Hobbes anthologies. But I’ve never come across comic books like the Benny and Penny books. These are bound like regular books with hard covers and so are very durable. The stories are exactly right for early readers, unlike, for example, Calvin and Hobbes. (I started questioning my wisdom in sharing those books after Max and Toby locked me out of our hotel room so that they could eat all of the cookies…and then said they got the idea from Calvin and Hobbes.) And, of course, with comic books, there are many pictures per page to help provide visual support for the story…even if a child could only read a few of the words, there is enough action in the pictures in the Benny and Penny comics that the story would be easily understood. ‘I love the pictures so much. The mice are so cute!’ said Toby when I asked him why he was first interested in the Benny and Penny books. After reading the newest one, The Toy Breaker, Toby said he thought all of the arguing was funny and also liked how Cousin Bo finally learned how to play nicely. He recommends it for ‘anyone who likes to read.’”

We agree with Toby that “anyone who likes to read” will love TOON Books.  In fact, we’ll take it one step further–anyone who DOESN’T like to read will love TOON Books!  Dynamic illustrations, top-notch writing, word balloons, sound effects, and paneling combine to make our comics some of the most engaging reads around.  If you won’t take these parents’ word for it, then show your own early reader our books with the TOON Book Reader.  Every book we’ve published is available online for free with English narration by its creator and narration in Spanish, French, Chinese or Russian by trained voice actors.  Mary Ann Scheuer, a Californian librarian, says of the Reader that it’s “a fantastic online site that helps bring comics alive for young kids, while teaching them important reading skills.”  And keeping comics alive and educational for kids–for every kid–is exactly what we at TOON set out to do.

Click on this image to explore the TOON Book Reader Library for yourself!

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