I have a big, big geek-dad crush on Toon Books, a fascinating publishing company that has the ridiculously admirable job of making readable comic books for young readers. And, Little Mouse Gets Ready, their Level One comic for beginning readers by Bone creator Jeff Smith, is quite simply one of my favorite books that I’ve ever bought for my daughter.
But let me backtrack a little and explain why I’m about to so effusively gush over Toon Books.
I’m a comics fan and have been since I was a kid. My house is filled with comics and graphic novels, so, of course, my daughter started to show interest in these cool, colorful books with lots of pictures that are stacked up in piles all around Daddy’s office. And that made me incredibly excited. I was dying to share my love of comics with her and quickly started taking her with me to our local comics store (Detroit Comics – GREAT store). I let her pick out some kids’ titles she was interested in – Muppets and Fraggle Rock comics, Monsters Inc., Tiny Titans, Scooby-Doo – and it didn’t really bother me that they were mostly commercial property spin-offs.
I knew enough to steer her away from the really heinous stuff, and I knew that even dorky media tie-in comics can act as great gateway drugs into real, honest-to-god comics comics. My own pathway into comics fandom began with Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, a comic based on a toy property, which drew me in, taught me how to read and appreciate comics, and eventually led me to the X-Men, the Avengers, Captain Britain, Milk & Cheese, Plastic Forks, Sam & Max, Dark Knight Returns, and so on and so forth, onwards and upwards. So, sure, I didn’t want to let my daughter think that Scooby-Doo was the pinnacle of kids comics, but I knew I had to let her get interested in comics on her own terms. Nothing will turn a kid off comics faster than a parent shoving titles at them and complaining, “No, no, you don’t want to read that – that dumb book YOU’RE interested in. THIS is the one…”
So we bought her a stack of her own comics and she loved them. LOVED them. She’d flip through them endlessly and read them at night under her covers with a flashlight. I was in geek-dad heaven. Until…
Until she asked me to sit down and READ the comics with her. And then, very, very quickly, something horrible – something I really, really didn’t want to admit – became readily apparent.
Reading comic books with a kid can be a huge pain in the ass.
Oh, how it kills me to admit this, but most comics aren’t made to be read aloud, which makes it incredibly difficult to sit down and read them with a pre-reader child. My daughter was so excited to have me read them to her, but, as I began, almost immediately, we both realized just how dense and confusing comics can be. My finger was constantly bouncing around the page, trying to show her where to read next. The text was super-small and my daughter – who loves being able to identify words on her own – simply couldn’t read the tiny print. The jumble of thought balloons, narration boxes, and sound effects baffled her and, even when we tried to read through a whole comic, at a certain point, she’d get impatient and frustrated with my pace or with being lost all the time. She LOVED flipping through the pages and pouring over the art, the facial expressions, the action – but she’d completely abandoned comics as something she could READ.
Yes, she could pick out a few words here and there, but, to calm her frustration, I actually heard myself telling her, “these comics are for looking at, not reading,” which, as a real lover of the comics medium, KILLED ME to say. I was worried that I’d introduced comics to her at too early an age and was annoyed that a lot of even so-called “kids comics” really weren’t meeting the needs of early readers. Sure, they were kid-focused in terms of subject matter and characters – “Look, Dad! It’s Buzz and Woody! This is a comic for me!” – but, in terms of the actual mechanics of making their stories physically readable for children, many of them were incredibly lacking.
It was around this time that I discovered the website for Toon Books. I’d been searching for early reader comics for children – and not finding much – and was instantly excited when I saw the names associated with Toon Books. Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman had previously published the Little Lit series of kid-friendly comics (I mentioned Little Lit on an earlier post) and, like most people, knew Spiegelman as the creator of Maus, a.k.a. one of the most famous graphic novels of all time. I immediately fell in love with the mission of Toon Books. Here’s an excerpt from their “About” page where they discuss their raison d’être:
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 child but perhaps more 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.
Isn’t that fantastic? Forget Scooby-Doo. The best way to convince a kid that they should read comics is to actually make comics that they can read themselves. I didn’t start reading G.I. Joe until I was in 3rd or 4th grade, so my ability to read wasn’t an issue. But Toon Books is actually looking at younger kids, the kids who are actively trying to read and who (like most kids) are actively drawn to comics, and are making books specifically for them. It’s such a simple yet revolutionary idea, and I can’t believe that such an idea has apparently NEVER occurred to any of the big corporate comics companies.
I quickly ordered my daughter Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith, one of Toon Books’ Level One comics for Grades K-1 (they call them “first comics for brand-new readers”). I was already familiar with Smith from his award-winning Bone series and loved that the book was a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book – just like the first book in my daughter’s OTHER favorite early reader series, Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie.
Little Mouse Gets Ready turned out to be a HUGE hit with my daughter. The book itself is a long, thin hardcover volume – perfect for little hands – and it has a very simple structure with only one or two panels per page. The story revolves around an off-panel Mama Mouse telling her son, Little Mouse, to get ready for a trip to the barn. To prepare himself, Little Mouse runs off to get his clothes on, laboring over each step, just like a 3- to 5-year-old would. He starts with his underpants and talks his unseen audience through his whole “getting dressed” procedure. After working hard to get his clothes on properly and in the right order, Little Mouse declares, “I did it! I’m ready!” Mama Mouse then appears, looking confused, and hilariously explains to her son, “Well… mice don’t wear clothes.” (Little Mouse’s reaction to this news is priceless.)
Little Mouse was EXACTLY the early reader comic I was looking for. It presents the best of the comics medium in a format that is incredibly accessible to beginning readers. The text in the word balloons is big, distinct, and easy to read. And I actually love the experience of having the words right there on the page within the illustrations. In most picture books, the text is kept separate from the images, but in comics, having those word balloons right in there adds this whole other level of contextual meaning to the text. My daughter was able to infer the meaning of words she wasn’t familiar with because the words were right there next to Little Mouse, who was, in a sense, acting out the intention of his words. It really made me realize what a powerful tool early reader comics could be for young readers if they were done right. And Little Mouse Gets Ready is DEFINITELY done right.
I’ve since bought three more Toon Book comics for my daughter and have taken two more out from our local library. My daughter now reads their Level Two comics, which are equally well done – we’re big fans of Geoffrey Hayes’ Benny and Penny – but it was definitely thanks to Little Mouse that she regained her confidence to regard comic books as something she could READ and not just look at. And that confidence has also helped her re-approach some of the more complex comics that I’d initially given her and, with the lessons learned from Toon Books, she’s more determined than ever to find words that she recognizes and try to work out what’s actually happening in the story.
Is that enough gushing for now? Sorry if I went overboard, but I think Toon Books is really onto something special. At the very least, they helped give my daughter the tools to learn to love an artform that I’ve loved since I was a kid, which is an exceptionally cool gift for an aging, balding geek-dad. Thanks Toon Books!
THE DETAILS ON LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY:
AGE RANGE: Toon Books’ Level One books are targeted for kindergarten to first grade, but I think kids as young as 3 or as old as 7 or 8 would still love this book.
PAGE COUNT: 32 pages
AUTHOR WEB SITE: The Toon Books website is FANTASTIC. You can get information on all of the books, get sample pages, read blogs, get lesson plans for the books – you can even download a FREE digital copy of Little Mouse Gets Ready for the iPad or iPhone OR read the whole book on an online reader. There’s also a Cartoon Maker game where kids can make their own animated cartoons featuring the stars of their favorite Toon Book. Honestly, this site is an invaluable resource for any parent trying to get their kids into comics and, all that aside, any kid would have a BALL with all the free resources that Toon Books gives away. Oh, and FYI, Little Mouse creator Jeff Smith also has his own website, but it’s more geared towards his non-Toon Books comics work.
BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: Buy it. Just buy it. It’s really, really good.
IF YOU LIKED LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- Johnny Boo: The Best Little Ghost In The World by James Kochalka – I used this as a readalike suggestion for Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk, but I think it applies to Little Mouse too. So, here goes… Kochalka is one of my favorite comic book creators (his Monkey vs. Robot graphic novel is EPIC) and he’s done an amazing job of creating some really original, compelling comics for kids. The Johnny Boo series is an odd little assortment of hardcover, 40-page graphic novels for young readers, which follow a friendly ghost and his ghost pet Squiggle as they have a series of silly adventures. In The Best Little Ghost In The World, Johnny and Squiggle make friends with the scary Ice Cream Monster and the relationships between the characters really shine thanks to Kochalka’s easy-to-read, but insightful dialogue. The range of emotions of his lead characters is really surprising and delightful, and kids will definitely dig in Johnny Boo’s decidedly weird sense of humor.