Friday, April 19, 2013

Two From Toon Books: Renee' French and Philippe Coudray

Francoise Mouly's Toon Books is now partnered with Candlewick Press, a respected children's book publisher. Little has changed about them, other than formally codifying the age levels of the books in an easy to understand way. Level one is for emerging readers, level two is for ages 6-7 and level three is for ages 7-8. As such, level one books have fewer words and just one to two panels per page. Level two books are a bit more complex. The same design team and overall quality remain the same; these are simply attractive books to look at and hold, no matter one's age.

Renee French is no stranger to doing children's lit (she has a couple of great ones under he pen name Rainy Dohaney), but this is the first time she's done comics for kids. Her book Barry's Best Buddy is a masterclass on how to effectively cartoon using constraints. The story is very simple: a bird-like creature named Barry is awakened by his friend Polarhog to go on a surprise walk. Along the way, the reluctant Barry is dragged along to such activities as trying on hats at a hat store and eating blue ice cream at an ice cream stand. French embraces the panel constraint and goes even bigger in some cases, with two pages containing a single panel's worth of action. Her figures are still recognizably her, as Barry's one-eyed appearance (we only ever see one eye) and Polarhog's slightly amorphous body are a bit on the unsettling side while still being recognizably cute. French goes all-in with the big panels as she has the pair of friends ambling in slightly dull fashion from left to right. At the same time, she introduces a parade of ants moving across the panel from right to left, carrying increasing strange objects to an unknown destination. The ants are only acknowledged once, at the very beginning of the story, and are otherwise ignored even though they are in the foreground of every page. It's an ingenious storytelling device, pushing kids to read a comics page in several different ways without telling them to do so. The final payoff is not completely unexpected but it's still quite pleasant as it rewards the eye for paying attention to what the ants are doing. French's ability to write a book that is simultaneously off-kilter and straightforward in any number of ways (especially in portraying friendship) make her a perfect candidate to as many of these Toon Books as she cares to do.

Philippe Coudray's first Benjamin Bear book, Fuzzy Thinking, caused a minor sensation because of its nature as a series of one-page gags for kids. The fact that the gags were uniformly clever and excellent is what made the book so popular for adults as well. His new book, Bright Ideas!, is more of the same kind of cartooning. Every page has a story that ends with a single gag. The first panel always establishes the premise of the strip ("the first one to the top of the tree wins!", "it's my ball!", "I'm too hot!", etc). In best improv fashion, the action takes a "yes, and" turn, encounters some kind of opposition and then winds up in a punchline that directly comments on the premise in an unexpected manner. Sometimes he does this with no dialogue at all, using a simple visual to establish the premise. Again, this is a comic that forces the reader to read each panel carefully and make cognitive leaps in order to understand the punchline. For the purposes of both entertainment and education, these books do a spectacular job of exercising new ways of looking at pictures that are far more interactive and complex than a typical illustrated children's book.

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