Over the last 30 years, New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly has managed to make a distinctive mark on the publication and creation of American comics at least three or four times. Mostly recently in 2008 she launched Toon Books, a line of graphic novels aimed at pre-readers, as an independent publishing operation—because, she says, no established publisher wanted to take a chance on a niche that didn't quite exist. But Toon Books’ independent publishing status will change in October when the Toon Books line of young readers’ comics becomes an imprint of Candlewick Books, a childrens’ and young adult book publisher in Somerville, Mass.
Over the course of her career Mouly has been a tremendously influential comics publisher. In 1980, along with her husband, Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist Art Speigelman, she copublished RAW magazne, a pioneering publication focused on showcasing a generation of experimentalist cartooning. In 2000 the two teamed up to launch Little Lit, a series of alternative comics aimed at children; and in 2008, she launched Toon Books, a series of hardcover comics conceived and designed to engage and transition young children into the act of reading. She has also been the art director of the New Yorker since 1993 and has used her position to introduce the work of scores of cartoonists—from R. Crumb and Los Bros Hernandez to Adrian Tomine— as cover artists and illustrators as well as publishing comics narratives in the magazine.
Now, two years after the launch of Toon Books, titles like Art Spiegelman’s Jack and the Box, Eleanor Davis’ Stinky, and Agnes Rosenstiehl’s Silly Lilly have received critical acclaim and the Toon Books list has been hailed for its quality and its innovative approach to encouraging reading at an early age. This year the American Library Association awarded the Geisel Medal for the most distinguished American book for beginning readers to a Toon book, Benny and Penny in The Big No-No byGeoffrey Hayes, and named another Toon title, Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith, a Geisel Honor Book.
PW Comics Week talked with Mouly about the new publishing and distribution arrangement with Candlewick Press; the continuing development of the Toon Books list and how the landscape surrounding the introduction of comics into the school and library market has changed over the past two years.
PW Comics Week: Will Toon Books continue to exist apart from Candlewick? Will there be any changes in format between the previous line and Candlewick's editions?
Francoise Mouly: Our format will not change since it has been so successful at establishing a new, widely accepted standard of excellence for early reader comics. Toon Books will continue to exist just as it was, with its editorial and brain trust in downtown New York and our partnership at Candlewick for the sales, marketing, promotion and distribution of the books.
PWCW: What will your role be now?
FM: My role doesn’t change, except now I can focus all my energy on developing and producing new books. It’s a relief, because in the past years I've had to dedicate much attention to promotion and advocacy for the books. I’m thrilled to pass that on to the top professionals in the field, who can do it much better than me. Editorially, we have, from the start, informally benefited from the advice and support of so many luminaries, such as Leonard Marcus, Lisa Von Drasek, Elizabeth Bird, Roger Sutton, too many to list here.It’s a privilege to now have an on-going back-and-forth with Karen Lotz and her team.
PWCW: Will you continue with the supplemental materials such as the blog, the teachers' guides, etc.?
FM: We most probably will. We certainly will try but, our current primary focus is getting more new books out.
PWCW: When we spoke in June, at the American Library Association midsummer meeting, you talked about how you had originally pitched Toon Books to a number of big publishing houses and they all turned it down because the category [hardcover comics designed with reading specialists to transition pre-readers into reading] didn't exist at the time. Do you think it exists now, or is Candlewick going out on a limb here?
FM: Both are true. We’ve made an indent, and Candlewick is pioneering new territory with the Toon Books imprint. With Candlewick, we’ll have much deeper inroads with children’s literature specialists and the trade marketplace. We were extremely lucky when we launched to have Diamond’s support. First and foremost, we benefited from the heroic Diamond Book Distributors, whose sole purpose is to distribute comics and graphic novels which wouldn’t otherwise be available in bookstores or libraries. Second, Diamond’s task was furthered by the challenge of distributing children’s books.
PWCW: You also commented then that had you signed with a big house in 2008, when you launched Toon Books, the recession that followed could have caused them to drop the imprint after a few tries. You told me, "In the children's publishing world, if you sell less than 100,000 or 200,000 of something they don't take you seriously." How will you avoid that danger with Candlewick?
FM: We have two factors working for us. First, we've received much recognition since our launch.The response, especially from librarians and educators, has been unbelievable. We won two Geisel Awards out of 3 books published last year, and it is the top award in our field! Secondly, Candlewick is an innovative and widely respected, ground-breaking publisher. They are relatively young and have a similar track-record of garnering praise and awards, particularly under the expert oversight of Karen Lotz. Candlewick is a rare gem, in the era of corporate takeovers: a publisher whose taste and dedication everyone trusts. Respected children's book buyers and librarians pay attention to what they offer, so their adoption of Toon Books is a very significant step for children’s comics.
PWCW: In the same conversation, you mentioned that bookstore distribution was a huge issue for you, because Diamond wasn't getting the books into bookstores. With Candlewick, you will have Random House doing the distribution. How big a factor was that for you in making this decision?
FM: The way we see it, we get the best of both worlds. It’s actually Candlewick doing the distribution: our books are represented by their sales force. But the order fulfillment is done by the Random House network (Candlewick's backoffice distributor), which is pretty much universally accessible. So it makes our books easily, instantly available to anyone interested in them.
PWCW: Right now, what is your strongest sales channel schools, libraries, or retail? Do you expect that to change?
FM: Thanks to the support of librarians and schools, I would say a lot of our success came from them. Many of our books are starting to be adopted in the schools, and this will only spread. This fall, we’re organizing a Toon contest in New York state’ schools, for example. Librarians are very aware of the appeal of comics and graphic novels to young children. Right now the acceptance of comics has been piloted by enlightened ‘alpha’ librarians, but as Toon Books keep winning awards, hopefully more libraries will be ready to develop a children’s comics section.
So far, we’ve had only limited presence in stores, but Candlewick is extremely savvy [and plans to] develop and grow our retail presence. Because of Toon Books’ high production values, children can fall in love with our books and treasure them for years. They revitalize the concept of gift books for kids.
PWCW: What will you miss the most about self-publishing? What will you miss the least?
FM: I won’t miss the endless pitching for the concept of kids’ comics—I started this in 1998, twelve years ago!—I’d much rather make the books than talk about them. But I won’t miss anything else. Again, in terms of publishing, nothing will really change, except for the better. We continue to have the same mandate to innovate, to do what no one else is doing, and we have the smartest people in the field to consult with. Then, as a magical extra bonus, we have an extraordinary team putting our books out there in the hands of children. It’s literally a dream come true.
PWCW: Now that you have been doing this for two years, do you look back at the first set of books and think "I could have done that better"? What have you learned during this time?
FM: I have very few regrets, since whatever I did got me exactly here, to the point where I always wanted to be: a mandate to continue to innovate, backed now by a solid sales force. I made some mistakes, but they were not fundamental, such as publishing paperbacks too early, and not really knowing how to position them. But that’s a good example of what we’ll be able to rectify moving forward. With Candlewick, we’ll get that right.