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The New Yorker Editor Who Became a Comic Book Hero

The amazing tale of a determined art director who harnessed the powers of the greatest
illustrators around the world to blow kids' minds
Comic books? Educational? The very idea is comical to anyone familiar with the 1954 Senate
subcommittee investigation that linked juvenile delinquency to horror and crime comics. The
politicians dealt the industry a staggering blow that it overcame only after superheroes, plus corny
teens like Archie and a rascal named Dennis, came to the rescue. Still, comics are seldom associated
with literacy. But Françoise Mouly started Toon Books precisely to get more young people reading,
and thinking, and enjoying the printed word, lushly illustrated and handsomely bound as well. “It’s
something they will hold in their hand and they will feel the care we put into it,” Mouly says.
Schools are catching on, spicing up reading lists with Toon titles (43 published so far). Mouly
acknowledges she’s putting teachers in a bind that is sort of funny: “Can you imagine having to go
see your principal and say, ‘I’m going to spend money on comic books!’” – The Editors
Smithsonian correspondent Jeff MacGregor recently sat down with Françoise Mouly in her Toon
Books offices. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
How did you come up with the idea for Toon Books—comic panels—as a mechanism for teaching
When I became a mother and was spending lots of time reading marvelous, wonderful books with
our kids, I reached a point where I realized there are not [all of the] books I would want to have as a
parent. We had spent the time reading children’s books [and French] comics. I would come back
from France with suitcases of the books my kids wanted. They loved comics, partly because it gave
them some things they could decipher for themselves before they could read the words.
And it had been my impulse [to read comics] when I was first in New York and my English was
very poor and I had difficulty reading real books and reading the newspapers. I had a command of
English, but not the way it’s used colloquially. Comics, because they are a multimedia form of
communication—you get some of the meaning from the words, from the size of the lettering, from
the font, from the shape of the balloon, you get the emotion of the character—it’s almost like
sketching out language for you. Kids don’t just sit there and wait for knowledge to be shoved into
their brains. Reading is making meaning out of squiggles, but the thing with comics is that no one
has ever had to teach a child how to find Waldo.
I realized this was a fantastic tool. It worked with our kids. “Well I learned to read,” says Art
[Spiegelman, Mouly's husband and illustrator of Maus], “by looking at Batman.” But when I
looked, I saw that the educational system was prejudiced against comics. I went to see every
publishing house and it was a kind of circular argument. It was like, “Well, it’s a great idea, but it
goes against a number of things that we don’t do.”
Was there ever a moment when you were seriously considering giving up?
Oh I gave up! By the end of 2006, beginning of 2007, I had given up. That’s when everybody that I
had talked into it was like, “Don’t give up! Please don’t give up! Keep at it!” That’s when I
investigated: What if I do it myself? I’m much more nimble because I have very little staff. At some
point I talked to Random House again when I was doing it myself. “Yeah, we can do it, we’ll do
them in pamphlets, you’ll do three a month, so you’ll do 36 a year of each title and you should do
like five titles.” I was like, “No, sorry! I can’t!” That’s not the same attention. You can’t produce
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The moment I was so happy was when a little girl was holding one of the Toon Books. that would have been the end of me. they are taken to the library. taking it to the restaurant. I want it to actually not be pristine anymore.” It’s completely abstract. I think that the kids need to have the book. I picture you as a little girl in Paris. the feedback we have gotten from the teachers. “I love this book. “Oh my God. once they open the floodgates. [but] mass media. your head is in a book. I still want to have a copy of the book. as Twitter is. but I want it to have lived with me for that period of time. Because when they enter school. and she was petting it and closing her eyes and going. is try to do it in such a way that a kid can bring a book home because you want them to teach their parents. I was talking to someone. A lot of this disposable print can be replaced by stuff you didn’t want to keep. I mean. everybody read books. The other thing is that if I had been picked up by one of those big houses. And similarly.good work. What’s the best part of being a publisher? I can make books happen without having to explain and justify. let me read this aloud to you. I love this book.” I sent her a set of Toon Books because she was always advocating for reading and it was just breaking her heart. So guess what would have been the first thing to go. everybody read magazines. Books and magazines were as prevalent then as Facebook is. Are the books accomplishing what you set out to do? Yeah. when we do programs with schools.” You don’t have to force them — it’s their favorite time. She wanted to read to them all. Now it’s actually almost the other way around. The granddaughter took [the books]. Do you think it’s more useful to have these in school or to have them in the home? You cannot. and they will feel the care we put into it. And you’re sending this out [now]. There were books in the home. And librarians. Page 2 of 3 . But when I read a book. That’s not the case anymore. I would have been wiped out because I launched in 2008.” The sensuality of her appreciation for the book. they realize. Most kids at the age of 5 or 6 don’t see their parents picking up a newspaper or a magazine or a pulp novel or literary novel. It’s something they will hold in their hand. taking a book everywhere. Is there an electronic future for these? One of my colleagues was saying e-books replaced cheap paperbacks and maybe that’s good. Not media for the elite. she loves books. how well it works. that’s love. [it becomes] “You must learn to read. “Grandma. when they enter school. the kids are actually asking to go to the library because they can sit on the floor and read comics.” She was reading in the car. Everybody [used to] read newspapers. “Eh. So you know. get them in the home. in this day and age. that’s not my thing. So then what we try to do. her kid loves books. just when the economy collapsed. and then after that was like. locked herself in a room. The libraries are playing an essential role. I want to see the stains from the coffee – not that I’m trying to damage my book. if they haven’t had them for the first five years of their lives. you’re sending these out to her. but her granddaughter who is 8 years old basically was like. Most kids discover books and comics. The librarians and the teachers were the ones removing comics from the hands of kids back in the ’60s and ’70s.

But I believe that we have a responsibility to every other kid whose parent is working two jobs and doesn’t necessarily have time to take their kid on their lap— who doesn’t have already access to books.It’s true. I am so privileged that my work life is what I love and I love what I do in my work. What is gong to be their lifeline? With all our books. Now I’m looking back on it and saying. Kids naturally want you to read them the same book every single night to the point where you’re going crazy. If I see something. I know to trust [myself]. Most people are asked to separate their private lives from their work lives. The ambition is not to make something that will want to be read. and that has served me well. One of the things that is really meaningful to me is the fact that I’ve been able to literally marry my love for Art. I’m not worried about my friends’ children. Books were my lifeline.” I’m still figuring it out one book at a time. but also looking at the pictures and seeing how they were different and they echoed and didn’t echo each other. we’re hitting all of the stories that we all need to have and share. everything I learned as a mother. how something could be. I shouldn’t ask permission from anybody. I should go out and do 12-year-olds and there would be a book of fantasy and there would be a fairy tale and there would be Greek mythology. we do lesson plans of the ways to not just read the book. What’s next? What do you do after all this? I’ll find that as I am doing it. Those can’t be derived products where you do 15 a month. When we launched the Toon Graphics. I want to publish next year’s book! The book of the future. my love for what he loves. but to make something that can be reread. All I know is. Your love story with Art is one of the great love stories. I can’t be the person saying that. The thing to stay away from. for me. That’s what I remember from when I was a kid. [I had] an illustrated fairy tale and I remember spending hours not just reading the stories again and again. Are you a transformative figure in the history of comics? You became the vehicle that moved comics out of the fringe into the center. I know that they have loving parents that will take them on their lap and read to them and they’ll come out OK. But they get something different every time. is what unfortunately is too often the case in publishing. Page 3 of 3 . “Oh my God. Those kids are thrown into an educational system where the poor teachers don’t have a chance to take the kids individually and do reading time. Those have to have as much substance as we had when we read Alice in Wonderland. that they all want to publish last year’s book. but reread the book. and there’s a way in which those books become building blocks and those have to be good. I didn’t realize that we would do books for 8. That’s fundamental.