Toon Books: Benny and Penny, Otto’s Orange Day, Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons

Otto's Orange Day

Toon Books is a new imprint that debuted earlier this year with the goal of providing “hardcover comics produced especially for earlier readers” (defined as ages four and up). It’s run by the folks behind Little Lit: Editorial Director Francoise Mouly (who is also Art Editor of The New Yorker) and her husband, Series Advisor Art Spiegelman (who is also author of Maus). So lots of knowledge and experience there!

I’m glad to see such handsome volumes carrying the message that comics can be for kids, but looking at the content and format of the first three releases, some of them seem more like picture books aiming to stretch a bit. They’re short, 32-40 pages, and priced at $12.95 US each (likely due to the hardcover, necessary for durability in the school and library market).

Also, they’re being explicitly pitched as educational, vetted by instructors and with language chosen to be easy and introductory to read, so these are not works for all ages, but clearly limited to the younger set, although adults might enjoy reading them with children.

Benny and Penny: Just Pretend

Benny and Penny: Just Pretend

by Geoffrey Hayes

Benny wants to play pirate, and little sister Penny wants to tag along. He thinks she’s an annoyance, until she outsmarts him, proves her bravery, and the two play together.

The dialogue is realistic for squabbling siblings, although they’re talking mice, and the illustrations are lovely with their quiet woodland feel and soft colors. I loved the sequence where Benny calls to Mom that it’s his sister’s nap time. While Penny turns away to say, “No, Mommy, no!”, he runs off behind her.

Pages have at most four panels, with relatively simple layouts, and most panels are treated as separate illustrations. There are a couple of inset panels which break up the usual grid format, used to demonstrate potent emotion.

Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons

Silly Lilly and the Four Seasons

by Agnes Rosenstiehl

This one is even more like a picture book, with a horizontal format split into four panels across each two-page spread. And it’s not really any sort of story. In Spring, Lilly goes to the park. In Summer, the beach. In Fall, she eats a grey (?) apple. In Winter, she throws a snowball.

It’s pitched as introducing kids to “the colors, words, and shapes that arise in nature” — shame, then, that “dance” and “jump”, two of the key actions during the Spring segment, look very much alike in the art. The same is true of the fish and the water droplets in the panel before. I generally wasn’t impressed by the simplistic, paper-doll art, and I found the static fixed camera viewpoint boring.

Otto’s Orange Day

Otto's Orange Day

written by Jay Lynch; drawn by Frank Cammuso

The other two books were done by those with backgrounds in children’s books. This one is by cartoonists, and the difference is obvious — it looks like a comic. It’s got multiple panels per page, with flow from one to another. The colors are more intense and involving. Panel backgrounds are shaded instead of left white. In short, it looks cartoony instead of fine art-influenced.

The storytelling is also more powerful. It jumps right into a story and doesn’t let the reader go. It doesn’t talk down to kids or sound like a vocabulary lesson. There are a lot more words per page, too, with lots of rhymes that would be fun to read out loud. They even include a picture puzzle in the middle to keep the reader involved!

Otto’s favorite color is orange, so when a genie grants him one wish, he wants the world to be that color. He quickly learns that that was a bad idea, both due to personal preference — all food being orange isn’t appetizing — and danger — stoplights don’t work well without different colors. Then he’s got to figure out how to outsmart the genie and fix things. This one’s the best of the bunch, in my opinion.


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