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Most of what we give our children says far more about our taste than their actual heart’s desire. My son keeps mentioning something about a purple dinosaur who sings; I feign ignorance. Our viewing habits, previously limited to railfan videos, have expanded to include Thomas and Bob and Pingu — but our house is still a Barney-free zone. And yes, I’m one of those hipster douchebag parents who gets excited about finding original Raffi vinyl at Sonic Boom.

So when I decided that my three-year-old might be ready for a different kind of reading experience, I was excited to learn about Toon Books, an imprint run by comic book icon Art Spiegelman and New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly, his wife.

I remember learning how to read by studying the colour comics in the Saturday Star …

NancyBy Ernie BUshmiller

… which my father would read aloud to me until I informed him I knew what they said. Maybe there’s something about word balloons that makes the process of learning to read accessible: words directly attributed to a character’s speech, rather than sentences detached from the image.

Every parent knows that there’s nothing more excruciating than reading a book that one of you finds completely tedious. With the Toon Books, even where the text fails, there’s a sumptuous visual feast.

The Toon Books come in different reading/interest levels: Level 1 is geared for ages three and up, with a reading level for kindergarten and Grade 1. Level 2 is for age four and up, with a reading level for Grades 1 and 2 and Level 3 is for age five and up, with a reading level for Grades 2 and 3.

The Boy is not yet reading, but recognizes the occasional basic word. We looked up what was available on the Toronto Public Library website one night before bedtime, and together we placed a few holds. (If you haven’t yet shown your child the wonder of placing books on hold, which then actually arrive, I highly recommend it.)

From the list we scrolled through together, The Boy and I checked out four Toon Books: Luke on the Loose by Harry Bliss, Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking by Philippe Coudray, Spiegelman’s Jack and the Box, and A Trip to the Bottom of the World (With Mouse) by Toronto’s own Frank Viva.

BenjaminBear

PHILIPPE COUDRAY

Benjamin Bear, which was a Level 2 book, was a bit advanced for him: he liked the pictures, but the book is a series of one- and two-panel jokes that require a more sophisticated sense of humour.

Toon Kids for kids who are learning to love books. Illustration taken from Phillippe Coudray's Benjamin Bear and Fuzzy Thinking (c)

PHILLIPE COUDRAY

However Harry Bliss’s Luke on the Loose, which was also a Level 2, was a huge hit for both of us. I liked the vintage comic book design: not self-conscious, simple, and similar to Mouly’s taste in New Yorker covers.

TEXT/ILLUSTRATION: HARRY BLISS

HARRY BLISS

The Boy loves the mischievous Luke, who runs away from his dad in Central Park while chasing pigeons; he runs through the whole city as people jump out of his way and ends up crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and falling asleep on a rooftop before fire fighters carry him back to his worried parents. 

Luke-On-The-Loose

HARRY BLISS

The Boy also recognizes that, amusing as Luke is, his actions are indeed dangerous. The text is minimal, but he recognizes some words and loves describing the action in each panel in detail.

Frank Viva’s A Trip to the Bottom of the World is a Level 1 book and very pretty, akin to the Chris Ware retro-futurist school of design and it’s a delight to look at.

Frank Viva: A Trip To the Bottom of the World with mouse - from Toon Books

FRANK VIVA

The story is a little thin however (yes, even for a kids’ book) and my son didn’t really engage with it. Given his obsession with transportation however, I’m looking forward to getting our hands on Viva’s first book, Along A Long

The story of Spiegelman’s Jack and the Box — which is mostly about a boy rabbit playing with his very silly pop-up toy — is also slight, and I didn’t think The Boy would be that into it. I was incredibly wrong.

Jack and the Box by Art Spiegelman: from Toon Books

ART SPIEGELMAN

The book is nonsensical, extremely silly, and appeals perfectly to his sense of humour at this age. He laughs his ass off every time. Again, the combination of minimal text and his fascination with the action is a perfect vehicle for his intellectual engagement.

Spiegelman built his career on taking comic books out of the juvenile ghetto and making them acceptable to adults; it’s amazing to discover that he knows exactly what kids want and like. The Boy loves Spiegelman’s book on his own terms, not mine.

I called up Toronto’s Little Island Comics, a magic children’s comic book store founded by The Beguiling (located just around the corner) to find out whether or not they had any Toon Books in stock and if so, which ones. “All of them,” the woman who answered the phone replied. I was momentarily startled into silence. “All of the books? In the whole line? At all the different ages levels?” “Yes,” she replied simply.

I think we may have a spring shopping expedition in our future.

Michael Barclay is a journalist and dad in Toronto who likes books, records and musical theatre.

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