A wide range of cartoonists from Dave Roman to Mike Mignola have been recruited to update classic nursery rhymes in First Second’s Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists, an anthology edited by Chris Duffy that is being published this month.
First Second marketing coordinator Gina Gagliano told PW Comics World that the house wanted to publish full-color comics that “updated nursery rhymes to appeal to modern day parents and kids,” as opposed to the classic black and white illustrations that usually accompany nursery rhymes. Mentioning the theme of the book’s afterword by the book’s editor, Chris Duffy, Gagliano noted that nursery rhymes are “a living part of culture,” and in the hands of the 50 creators in the book, they are transformed and updated to our modern sensibility with vibrant colors and quirky interpretations.
Gagliano said the original idea to update nursery rhymes came from Lauren Wohl, former associate publisher at Roaring Brook Press, who Gagliano said had “a finger on the pulse of the kids’ market.” First Second editor Duffy, who formerly edited comics for Nickelodeon magazine, made a list of potential cartoonists for the project. “We wanted to work with people we admire,” said Gagliano, “from all parts of the industry.”
Contributors include established creators such as Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (Love & Rockets), Tony Millionaire (Sock Monkey), Jules Feiffer (Explainers), Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo), and Craig Thompson (Habibi), as well as such up and coming creators as Kate Beaton and Aaron Renier. Each cartoonist was paired with a nursery rhyme, Gagliano explained, to avoid inappropriate content such as nursery rhymes “with small children drinking beer” and to “match the sensibility” of the style and content. She pointed to pairing Nick Bruel, creator of the Bad Kitty picture books, with the rhyme “Three Little Kittens,” and Stephanie Yue, who illustrates the Pet Shop Private Eye series, Mousenet, was paired with “Hickory Dickory Dock.” However Gagliano said some creators requested rhymes. For instance, Laura Park requested her favorite childhood nursery rhyme, “Croak said the Toad.” “We had never heard of it before,” said Gagliano, but they did research and discovered it was “a real 18th century nursery rhyme, a great classic.”
In addition to matching creators with rhymes, the editor had to make sure not only the content but the presentation of the rhymes was age appropriate. Gagliano cited the youngest reading age as six, but kids as young as three could be read the book aloud. “It's hard to write for that age,” Gagliano said. “The content and vocabulary has to be right, and make it fun and interesting.” She said Duffy’s experience editing comics for this age group was indispensable. “He knows exactly what to tell people, how big the text should be, [and] what’s too scary and what’s just right.” Gagliano also noted they had to “take design into account, [making] sure it's readable [and] the panels all follow one another [clearly], and asides are readable by the smallest readers.” Looking ahead, Gagliano said they’d like to publish more comics for this age range, but creating comics for young readers comes with a range of issues and they needed to “find the right people and series.”
In an effort to reach young readers, Gagliano said First Second will promote the book at school and library conventions, such as the American Library Association's midwinter meeting. On October 29, Duffy and First Second editor Calista Brill will speak at Bookfest at the Bank Street College of Education. Also, Gagliano pointed to events across the country, including signings, parties, and events in school libraries. These events will involve, according to Gagliano, “fun interactive” activities that allow “kids to make their own versions of a nursery rhyme.”
At the recent New York Comic Con, Duffy led a panel on Sunday’s Kids’ Day, where kids made their own version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Gagliano said the activity encouraged kids to think about who the protagonist in their version would be, since the original is vague.