When Francoise Mouly's son, Dash, was a first-grader and struggling to learn to read, his teacher suggested he practice at home with books for beginning readers.
Mouly, however, was aghast at the lack of interesting stories and visual clues in most beginning-reader books.
"Those early readers nearly killed his love of reading," Mouly said in a recent telephone interview. "It was really a blow to what had been, until then, a bonding moment."
So Mouly, who grew up in France, decided instead that her son would learn to read with her large collection of French comics.
"I spent the next few months reading those with my son, which meant that reading time remained a pleasure."
Dash is now a teenager, but Mouly, art director of The New Yorker, never forgot that experience. And so, last year, she and her husband, Art Spiegelman (famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, "Maus"), launched TOON Books, a line of hardcover comic books aimed at beginning readers.
TOON Books published six books last year; one of them, "Stinky," written and illustrated by Eleanor Davis, was named a Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor Book for beginning readers. Spiegelman also contributed one book, "Jack in the Box," to the first line of TOON Books.
The books, published in beautifully designed, brightly colored hardcover editions, cost $12.95 each. Two more books were published this year: "Luke on the Loose," by author/artist Harry Bliss, and "Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!," by author/artist Geoffrey Hayes. Mouly plans to expand the line into nonfiction.
Unlike typical beginning readers, where the text is most important, in the TOON books, the illustrations are the focus.
In a non-comic book, Mouly explained, "the text is written first. All of the story and clues to meaning are in the text. Pictures add to it, but they gild the lily." In comics, however, "the narrative flow is sketched out first, then the text is filled in. If you don't understand the words, then you still get the gist because the sense is in the pictures."
Mouly has worked with teachers and reading experts to ensure that the books have a vocabulary that works for beginning readers at various stages. The books also are rated for various reading systems used in schools although that information isn't contained in the books but on the TOON Books' Web site (www.toon-books.com).
"The books are very specifically graded for kids learning to read," Mouly said. "But we didn't want to put the level information in the books because we didn't want to discourage kids."
Unlike many new publishers, TOON Books received attention from the start, partly helped by Mouly's New Yorker position and Spiegelman's "Maus" fame. But there were other factors that boosted TOON Books' initial profile, such as the general lack of satisfying beginning-reader books and the growing market for graphic novels aimed at kids.
The most recent sales figures, compiled by ICv2, an industry trade group, show a 134 percent growth rate in graphic novels for kids from 2007-08. Graphic novels for kids accounted for only 3 percent of the $395 million 2008 graphic-novel market, but their share is expected to grow.
Yet confusion persists over just what to call these books for kids. Mouly prefers to call them "comics."
"I think it's confusing to call them 'kids' graphic novels,' " she said. "They're great books, but not novels. They are comics and that is starting to be OK."
In fact, it was Mouly and Spiegelman who promoted the term "graphic novel" in trying to raise the literary profile of the form when "Maus" was published nearly 25 years ago. At the time, "comics" were regarded as something for kids.
"Art and I have always been advocating that comics are not just for kids. It led us into a land where comics are now accepted in museums and in libraries and bookstores. Then we turned around after all this accomplishment and said, 'Wait, but we didn't mean to say that comics aren't also OK for kids!' "
Mouly and Spiegelman first stepped into the kids' comics arena in 2000, when they published a compendium of comics for young readers in a volume titled "Little Lit." Still, when Mouly tried to convince publishers to put out her beginning-reader comics, she found lots of interest but no takers because the books "crossed boundaries." So Mouly decided to publish them herself.
"There's an enormous industry of those very boring readers for kids," she said. "But we must give kids something that gives them a taste of how pleasurable reading is."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com .