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James Kochalka, Mo Willems and Toon Books: Comics as Kids' Books
Article by Scott Tingley, February 23, 2008

A few months ago one of the staff at my local comic shop asked me what comics I would recommend to parents of young children; ages 4-6, early readers. I drew a blank. There are a growing number of comics for younger readers (ages 8 and up), but nothing for the very young came to mind. This seemed odd to me since there are very many traditional kids' books out there for emerging reader, so they must be profitable for some.

Then I remembered (after I had left the store, of course) the hilarious Pigeon adventures by Mo Willems. These books will make you laugh out loud. The kids I had last year in a grade one-two split absolutely loved these books. The words were easy to read for most of them by the end of the year and the pictures were so simple (ingeniously simple) that the kids could mimic Willem's style to make their own stories. These books are not on the radar of most comic fans, and that is a shame…for comic fans. The books seem to be doing well without their assistance. It is printed like every other kid's book, but it is most definitely a comic book.

Which brings up the question: what is the difference between a traditional book for children and a comic created for children? Sometimes it's very little.

James Kochalka is a well known indy comic and web comic creator. He has made comics for every age – some good for kids, some absolutely not good for kids. He recently had Squirrelly Gray, his first children's book, published. Ever the comic creator, Squirrelly Gray had a lot of comic to it and a lot of traditional elements. Call it the missing link between the two mediums. The main text was written with a rhyme scheme that my grade three students really enjoyed and the illustrations were presented in comic form. The combination of the two styles made this a good one to read out loud to a group, and one that made the kids want to borrow the it so they could get a closer look at the comic panels.

Johnny Boo is Kochalka's latest full comic endeavor, and it is definitely written with kids in mind. It stars a ghost, his pet…..ghost (not sure how that works) and an ice cream monster. Tip: never trust your ice cream around an ICE CREAM MONSTER! When I think of the process Kochalka went through to write Johnny Boo I imagine that he snuck into a grade two class, read through a couple of the kids' stories and said to himself, “Yeah, I can use that.” He then went home and rewrote it in his style, but still keeping the kid logic that every one of my students has used at one time or another. That crazy storytelling, the simpler, but readable word choices and his vibrant and unique art style make for a terrific comic for the very young.

I really enjoyed this book and I think it would be a good fit in any elementary classroom (especially with the mildly gross burping page).

New on the comic / kids' book scene is the publisher Toon Books fronted by the Little Lit people, Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman. “ TOON Books are the first high-quality comics designed for children ages four and up. Each book in the collection is just right for reading to the youngest but, perhaps most remarkable: this is the first collection ever designed to offer newly-emerging readers comics they can read themselves.” (from Toon-Books.com) There have (in my opinion) already been comics aimed at the newly-emerging reader (some mentioned here already), but this does seem to be the first collection to do so. When I first started this site a couple of years ago I mentioned to a couple of all-ages comic creators that they should publish board-books featuring their characters so comic fans could share their passion for the medium with the young kids in their family, but nothing ever happened with that (looking at you Herobear and Owly), so it is nice to see a publisher stepping up to fill in that gap.

There are three Toon books soon to be out. Two of them would be great for kindergarten and grade one students to read on their own. There is a lot of the repetition and simple word patterns found in the leveled books we have for the newest students and it looks like some thought went in to choosing words that these kids would either already know or need to know in these grades. Silly Lilly and The Four Seasons is the youngest of the bunch. It is repetitive, which is a good thing, and the colors are vibrant and the pictures are pretty and uncluttered. It follows Lilly as she plays a bit in each season. My only constructive comment is that in books aimed at early readers the pictures should provide clues to the reader. This is not always the case in Lilly. For instance, I can't really tell that she is napping in the “And I like to nap!” panel; and in the “Let's go pick apples!” page, there are no apples other than the blurry ones on her dress. Kids need these picture cues. There are lots of instances in Lilly where there are these cues, but I feel that there are gaps that may make the book harder to read. I feel silly saying all this, because the book's creator is a well respected writer and artist, but I have been a teacher for a while and I know what some kids need. That said, I like it and I will be ordering it for my school.

Benny and Penny , the story of a little boy mouse and his younger sister who likes to ruin his pretending is very cute, and my three year old daughter really liked it. There is action, arguing, sound effects and some repetitive word choices. This is for an older independent reader than Silly Lilly, but perfect for any young child and a parent to curl up with.

Otto's Orange Day is for an even older independent reader, and it is the one I enjoyed the most. Otto the cat gets a wish from a genie and he uses it to turn the world his favorite color, ORANGE . There are funny consequences and a silly resolution. Good stuff. There are even chapters, which grade 1+2 kids love.

Before I close I do want to mention to teachers that even though I am a huge supporter of comics in the classroom (duh), they don't often make good read aloud books. There are three criteria I judge a book on when bringing into my classroom (honestly, I'll take any appropriate book that I can get my hands on, but only certain ones get the spotlight). The criteria are: Is it visually appealing, is it well written, and can it be read out loud to a group of children? The first two apply to comics, but the third isn't really fair. The Pigeon books are fine for read-a-louds, because there is very little use of panels and the word balloons seem to be written with whole class readings in mind, but the other books in this discussion seem to be written more for the one on one, small group read.

These are exciting and appealing choices for your classroom, library or home. The Pigeon books and Squirrelly Gray books are out now, Johnny Boo will be out in June 2008, Benny and Penny will be out in April, with Silly Lilly and Otto coming out in May and June from Toon Books.




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