Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director and wife of acclaimed cartoonist Art Spiegelman, is at it again. After they transformed American comics with their seminal 1980s comics anthology RAW, Mouly is now out to teach kids to read by using comics. Mouly has announced plans to launch a new line of book format comics called Toon Books, aimed at readers ages four and up, designed to nurture basic reading skills and encourage a love of visual storytelling.

The line will launch with three books in spring 2008 and will be distributed by Diamond Book Distributors. Titles include Benny and Penny by Geoffrey Hayes, Silly Lilly by Agnes Rosenstiehl and Otto's Orange Day by Frank Cammuso and Jay Lynch. Mouly is providing all the financing and expects to publish six books in 2008, including a Toon Book by Art Spiegelman (called Jack and the Box) that will be part of the second set of releases.

The books feature full-color original comics stories vetted by educators and librarians for their vocabulary and word count. Mouly visited grade-school classes in Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Pennsylvania while developing the titles to get feedback from teachers and, of course, from the kids themselves.

“Comics are the gateway to literacy for young kids,” said Mouly who expects Toon Books to transform books for early readers the same way RAW influenced indie comics. “RAW showed that comics can be taken seriously,” she said. Little Lit, a comics line for older kids launched by Mouly and Spiegelman in 2000, “was an intermediate step using the RAW model. Now there are more comics for kids 10--12 years old but not for very young kids.”

Although Toon Books have chapters and are leveled to specific age groups, Mouly has taken care to avoid stigmatizing the books with obvious grade-level markings or age rankings.

But why finance and launch the line herself? “I know it's completely insane,” she said with a laugh, “but I've packaged many books for publishers. I want control to make them right.” She approached several traditional children's publishers with the idea, “but they just wanted to pick and choose individual titles.”

Mouly said she's offering an approach to creating books for children that turns the editorial process around. “My work at RAW and my job at the New Yorker is to recognize talent and nurture it.” Mouly said she carefully picks the Toon Book creators and gives them the freedom to create vivid stories. “Here, the artists determine what they want to say. Usually it's the other way around,” she said.

Among the artists on her initial list are Geoffrey Hayes, a children's author/illustrator Mouly said had long been interested in creating comics; and French children's book author Agnes Rosenstiehl, who is being published for the first time in the U.S.

Besides feedback from kids in schools and meeting with advisors like Lisa Von Drasek, children's librarian at the Bank Street College of Education, Mouly also met with Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland Superintendent of Schools. Toon Books will be added to Maryland's Comics in the Classroom initiative, a pilot young readers program using Disney comics that is co-sponsored by Disney Publishing, Diamond and the Maryland Department of Education.

Janna Morishima, director of Diamond Kids Group, which works to support Diamond's children's comics, said DBD took on Toon Books because of Mouly's deep publishing experience. “She's a small press publisher,” Morishima said; “as an art director she works with the best illustrators in the world and she's published kids' books at HarperCollins. She can offer the best of the comics scene, combined with real experience in children's publishing. She's unique.”