Jeff Smith and Francoise Mouly's Toon Book line are a pretty obvious match for each other. Smith's fantasy series BONE, while not explicitly aimed at children, still drew a huge audience from the younger set despite some pretty intense moments. Amazingly, the book took on a second life when Smith decided to reprint it in color through Scholastic Books. BONE worked because it lulled readers into thinking it was going to be a whimsical, quirky story along the lines of Walt Kelly's POGO; indeed, both Smith's line and the patois of his characters were very much in the spirit of Kelly's work. After thoroughly establishing all of the foibles of his characters, Smith then veered off into a Tolkeinesque fantasy quest story that had the relentless action flow of a Carl Barks story. One gets the sense when reading Smith that there's a very careful and deliberate amount of thought that goes into every storytelling decision. What makes his comics successful is that his deliberate style still manages to retain a great deal of spontaneity on the page. His line is as loose and expressive as his composition is deliberate and controlled.
That really tends to play itself out when Smith is dealing with humor. Given that his storytelling style veers from humorous to serious on a dime, I was curious to see what would happen when he took on a story specifically aimed at first-time readers. What makes LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY so clever is that it's both a shaggy dog story in that a lot of build-up is subverted for a punchline that essentially negates the rest of the story. At the same time, the build-up itself is both charming and didactic. The story, such as it is, unfolds thusly: a child mouse gets ready to visit the barn with his mother. First, he must get dressed. He soliloquizes as he puts on each article of clothing, struggling with dressing himself like any child at that age might. Finally, his mother comes by and delivers a plop-take inducing punchline ("Mice don't wear clothes"). It's not so much a story like Geoffrey Hayes, Jay Lynch or Eleanor Davis told in their Toon Book editions than a blow-by-blow delineation of a struggle its readers can identify with. Smith simply can't resist blowing up the educational aspects of the book with a gag that he works hard to depict. At the same time, it's not quite as simplistic as Art Spiegelman or Agnes Rosenstiehl's books, whose vocabulary was clearly aimed at new readers.
Smith's book is somewhere in-between, with a slightly more advanced vocabulary paired with a simplistic structure. The way the book's central joke is constructed might lend itself to enjoyment on multiple occasions for kids in the way a game of peek-a-boo never gets tired. That's because Smith also changes his visual style in order to sell the joke. As noted earlier, Smith is known for his command of panel-to-panel action flow, sweeping a reader along even when other information was lacking. He's also known for his charming and simple character design, which is certainly at work here. LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY was unusual for Smith in that most of the book's pages are static. Little Mouse isn't moving a whole lot, and Smith chooses to really let the book breathe with just one or two panels on every page. The relatively boring action on each page is countered by the pleasing character design and expressiveness, especially in the eyes. When the gag is delivered, the reader is treated to a two-page spread as Little Mouse bounds away from the eyes of his mother and his audience. LITTLE MOUSE GETS READY gives the young reader a nice punchline but doesn't really play to Smith's strengths. I'd love to see future Toon Books efforts by him that are a bit more traditional in terms of narrative and play more toward his skills as a dynamic storyteller. Still, it's nice to see Smith do something very much unlike what he's best known for.