A Public Service Announcement! ;)

A Public Service Announcement! ;)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mouly & Spiegelman Announce Toon Books

Just months ago I was using Art Spiegelman as an example of an artist who should produce his art without having to feel like he had to offer pedagogical potential. Finding teaching opportunities in the work of artists was the job of educators, I claimed. Now Spiegelman, and more specifically his wife Francoise Mouly, are getting into the kids comics game like never before, and they're using pedagogy research to help them build upon their already respectable repuations for producing high-quality comics for youth.

They've been producing the excellent Little Lit series for younger readers for years now, but their newest project, Toon Books, extends those efforts.

With the goal of "Bringing new readers to the pleasures of comics," Toon Books is seriously considering pedagogy as part of its marketing. From the website:

"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. Each TOON book has been vetted by educators to ensure that the language and the narratives will nurture young minds. Our books feature original stories and characters created by veteran children’s book authors, renowned cartoonists and new talents, all applying their extraordinary skills to fascinate young children with clearly told tales that will welcome them to the magic of reading...."

"Comics have always had a unique ability to draw young readers into a story through the drawings. Visual narrative helps kids crack the code that allows literacy to flourish, teaching them how to read from left to right, from top to bottom. Speech balloons facilitate a child’s understanding of written dialogue as a transcription of spoken language. Many of the issues that emerging readers have traditionally struggled with are instantly clarified by comics’ simple and inviting format. As a matter of fact, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, is planning to use the TOON Books in K-3 classrooms as part of the Maryland Comic Book Initiative.

As one of our advisors, Barbara Tversky, professor of Psychology at Stanford University, explains: 'Comics use a broad range of sophisticated devices for communication. They are similar to face-to-face interactions, in which meaning is derived not solely from words, but also from gestures, intonation, facial expressions and props. Comics are more than just illustrated books, but rather make use of a multi-modal language that blends words, pictures, facial expressions, panel-to-panel progression, color, sound effects and more to engage readers in a compelling narrative.'”

Those quotes show a pretty strong commitment to making sure potential buyers know their purchases are beneficial to the children in their lives. The Toon Books blog, a fun and interesting resource, continues this sort of pedagogy-pinching by referencing intriguing studies on comprehension and visual development.

Whether done singularly for marketing purposes or with an altruistic aim of proving sequential art's pedagogical potential, I find it exciting that such high-quality creative minds are making a serious effort to produce excellent comics for kids. And make no mistake -- they are focusing on the young ones. Not teens, not tweens: kids. They even end the introductory piece from which I quoted above by saying "Comics -- they're not just for grown-ups anymore," a wink and a nod to all of us who are sick of articles wanting to extol the virtue of sequential art by saying things like "comics have grown up" and "they're not just for kids anymore."

More power to Mouly and Spiegelman. I hope Toon Books is a great success. Am I worried about artists using educators to help sell their products? Maybe just a little, but having seen the quality work that Mouly and Spiegelman have put together in the Little Lit series, I can't help but be excited.
And, heck, if experts in education help sell books that help kids develop both a love of reading and their appreciation/awareness for visual conventions of communication, isn't that the type of synergy we should celebrate? So often folks ignore what education research says about things. If a savvy publisher has decided to build ethos while also letting folks know that certain companies are paying attention to what education researchers have to say in their independent research, I know I'll take note of it -- with a critical eye, of course -- but I'll still note the effort and the names and studies mentioned.

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