Secret of the Stone Frog

By David Nytra
80 pages, black and white
Published by Toon Books

Toon Books is known for creating a smart synthesis between children’s books and graphic novels; their books appropriate the storytelling traditions and techniques of both and turn them into a bridge between the slightly different formats. With The Secret of the Stone Frog, though, Toon has published a full graphic novel for younger readers by David Nytra. And as it turns out, it was well worth the wait with a graceful, dreamy story that captures the imagination.

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Maya Makes a Mess

By Rutu Modan
32 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

Toon Books is a publisher that specializes in a synthesis of children’s books and comics. These books use the structure of both mediums to form beautiful graphic novels aimed at children of different ages that not only serve as gateways to comics, but also are genuinely enjoyable in their own right. With three new books being released by Toon Books, today’s “Quick Takes” reviews focus on the latest publications from Toon.

Maya Makes a Mess is the first children’s book I’ve seen by Actus comic collective creator Rutu Modan, but I hope it won’t be the last. It takes a familiar litany from a parent—asking a child to show some manners when eating at the table—and turns it nicely on its ear when Maya’s father’s threat, "What if you were eating dinner with the Queen?" is suddenly put to the test when Maya receives an invitation to do just that. At its core, Maya Makes a Mess is a beautiful flight of fancy from a child who imagines a theoretical situation playing out in only the way that a kid can, and it’s pitch-perfect. Every little step of Maya’s journey is well told, and it’s all in Maya’s voice, with that childlike yet wide-eyed exuberance. Parents might not be able to teach their children the manners they want through Maya Makes a Mess, but they will surely teach them fun.

Modan’s art looks great here too; she packs in a ton of detail on every page, especially when it comes to the banquet. With lots of tiny, intricate lines the pages have a lot to examine, from strands of spaghetti to petals on flowers. Half of the fun is just watching what’s going on in every page; Modan doesn’t skimp on a single page, and because of that Maya Makes a Mess is wonderfully re-readable. You’re almost guaranteed to see something new each time, and that’s a rarity in a children’s book. I was delighted to see Toon publish a children’s book from indy comic artist R. Kikuo Johnson (The Shark King) earlier this year, and it’s a joy to see them cast that net wide once more with Modan. All in all, another winner from Modan and Toon Books.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

Benny and Penny in Lights Out!

By Geoffrey Hayes
32 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

Toon Books is a publisher that specializes in a synthesis of children’s books and comics. These books use the structure of both mediums to form beautiful graphic novels aimed at children of different ages that not only serve as gateways to comics, but also are genuinely enjoyable in their own right. With three new books being released by Toon Books, today’s “Quick Takes” reviews focus on the latest publications from Toon.

Geoffrey Hayes’s Benny and Penny books are some of my favorites in the publishing line, so a new installment from Hayes was bound to tickle my fancy. Benny and Penny in Lights Out! does just that, as the brother-and-sister duo get ready for bed, tell each other scary stories, and sneak out a window into the dark to try and find Benny’s missing pirate hat. What’s great about Benny and Penny in Lights Out! (and the Benny and Penny books in general) is that despite the verbal sparring that the duo occasionally have, there’s a certain level of affection that’s always present between the two. Penny clearly looks up to her big brother, and Benny himself has a protective side that will surface as need be.

I also appreciated that for all of Benny’s bluster, it’s Penny who can kick up the bravery when it needs to be present; she might be the little sister but she’s not afraid to be the tough one when need be. Add in some beautiful art from Hayes, with soft gentle shading that draws you into the page, and you’re hooked. I love the big two-page spread of Penny outside at night by herself, and Hayes plays with light and shadow quite effectively for a book set in the dark hours. Aimed at first and second graders, Benny and Penny in Lights Out! is a book that parents will enjoy reading by themselves as much as they will with their children. I might be about to enter my 40s, but I’ll cheerfully keep collecting all the Benny and Penny books for my own bookshelves.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse

By Frank Viva
32 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

Toon Books is a publisher that specializes in a synthesis of children’s books and comics. These books use the structure of both mediums to form beautiful graphic novels aimed at children of different ages that not only serve as gateways to comics, but also are genuinely enjoyable in their own right. With three new books being released by Toon Books, today’s “Quick Takes” reviews focus on the latest publications from Toon.

I’d never heard of Frank Viva before A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse, but now that I’ve seen his art I won’t forget him. Viva’s art looks almost like pieces of construction paper meticulously cut out and glued together onto the page; big, beautiful shapes with colors that are soothing yet noticeable. (In fact, the book was constructed through Adobe Illustrator, which is only sad in that I’d love to have originals on my wall from Viva.) Viva tackles all sorts of images here, from orca and penguins to icebergs and waves. The Antarctic region comes across as a beautiful and soothing place thanks to Viva, and for that alone you’ll want to look at A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse.

Fortunately the storytelling is strong here, too. Aimed at very young readers, Viva uses patterns and repetition to keep the attention of the little kids, but fortunately he also keeps it from becoming annoying to adults. Whenever Mouse offers up ideas, Viva divides the landscape-oriented pages into four spots so that parents can point to each and say the item being illustrated there; it’s an effective way to teach kids about both mundane and out-of-the-ordinary things. A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse is enchanting, and hopefully it’s not the first trip that Viva is taking Mouse, his explorer friend, or us. I’m a Viva fan now, and once you look at this book, you’ll be too.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

Shark King

By R. Kikuo Johnson
40 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

When R. Kikuo Johnson’s Night Fisher graphic novel was published in 2005, I remember a lot of people proclaiming him to be the next big thing in comics. The book and Johnson got their fair share of awards, but since then there’s been remarkably little in the way of new creations from Johnson. I think I was as surprised as anyone else when The Shark King was announced; a book for young readers was almost certainly not where I’d expected him to show up next. This retelling of a Hawaiian myth, though, is going to enchant readers of all ages.

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Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking

By Philippe Coudray
32 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

One of the latest publications from Toon Books is Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking, aimed at first and second graders. While I’ve always said that there’s a lot to love from the Toon Books line for older readers, it’s Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking where I feel like we’ve got a book that anyone from the age of 5 to 105 will enjoy. Philippe Coudray writes and draws a series of one-page gage strips starring Benjamin Bear and his friends, in a series of events that goes from a trip to the grocery store, to a visit from the man in the moon. There’s a wonderful ridiculousness about each story though, as Coudray goes for a goofiness that can’t help but make you laugh.

Coudray’s art is simple but effective; the pages have an easy to follow structure, and the art uses a handful of lines to make Benjamin and company look iconic and expressive. Coudray’s jokes sometimes rely on motion, too (like an inventive way to get a rabbit from one cliff to another that’s too far for it to jump), and I feel like he’s able to get those ideas across to his readers of all ages with ease.

Every now and then, Coudray’s punch lines aren’t so much humorous as they are sweet; a show of friendship, be it getting an apple off a tree or staying warm at night. I think that’s what ultimately helps Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking work so well; it’s not just fall-over laughing humor, but there’s a softer side that appears from time to time. It shifts the book from strictly humor to a well-rounded book. Go out and buy it for that little kid in your life… but don’t blame me if you open it up to take a look and end up reading the entire thing. It’s just great.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

Chick and Chickie Play All Day!

By Claude Ponti
32 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

Claude Ponti’s Chick and Chickie Play All Day! is a comic aimed for beginning readers, so like most children’s books for that earliest age, it’s a simple story. What impressed me almost off the bat, though, was how well Ponti uses the ideas behind sequential art storytelling in a way that will subtly teach those littlest of readers how to read comics. Presented in a landscape format, Ponti sometimes uses the two-page spread as a single panel, other times as two panels. In doing so, he’s showing his readers the progression of time, either through a panel border or through a long stretch of space. As they walk across the spreads, you get the sensation of scenes taking longer than a single moment; it’s impressive when you realize that he’s using these storytelling techniques for young readers who will almost certainly grab what he’s doing and take it with them.

The story itself in Chick and Chickie Play All Day! is cute, too; it’s about a pair of chicks who first make masks and scare one another, and then play with a massive, ambulatory letter A. The second half feels like a good way to introduce those little readers into the idea of there being more than one "A" sound, and to also play with the idea of inflection creating meaning. Add in some charming illustrations, and this is a winner for those new readers in your household. Plus, if that’s not enough, you can also start prepping them into the world of comics. Everyone wins.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

Zig and Wikki in The Cow

Written by Nadja Spiegelman
Art by Trade Loeffler
40 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

Two years ago Toon Books published Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework, an educational comic book about two aliens exploring Earth. Imagine my surprise to see that there’s now a sequel, Zig and Wikki in The Cow, which is just as charming as the first offering. Zig and Wikki in The Cow is a direct sequel to the first book, although readers who haven’t read the earlier graphic novel will still be just fine. Having left Earth with a fly as a pet, Zig and Wikki get worried about the fly’s health and come back to try and make it better. In the process, the pair learn about ecosystems and how each piece of the system has an important duty. At the same time, Nadja Spiegelman mixes in facts about different creatures and organisms, some humor, and a good dose of friendship. It’s great because each reader will get something a little different from the book; some will focus on Wikki feeling like Zig isn’t being his close friend, while others will no doubt me more interested in the idea of the characters getting deliberately eaten by a cow. Since Zig and Wikki in The Cow is aimed at Toon Books’ oldest readers (second and third grade), Spiegelman has to give a slightly more robust plot than some other books in the line, but it works well.

Trade Loeffler’s art is fun as always; Wikki holding up grass so that a cow will eat him is funny, and Zig’s cyclops eye with tentacle arms looks charming rather than creepy. Loeffler once more has his work cut out for him thanks to getting to draw everything from a cow stomach to dung beetles, but he handles it all with equal aplomb, even when drawing an entire herd of cows where it’s just been pointed out that no two have the same pattern. Zig and Wikki in The Cow is another good book from Toon Books; this is a comic that both kids and parents will appreciate. If there are more Zig and Wikki books down the line, I’ll definitely be buying them for the younger kids in my life.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

Silly Lilly in What Will I Be Today?

By Agnès Rosenstiehl
32 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

Agnès Rosenstiehl’s Silly Lilly in What Will I Be Today? is a short and sweet book for first-time readers, but one that is surprisingly charming. Rosenstiehl tells a series of eight-panel adventures about her title character Lilly, as she decides each day of the week what her new profession will be. As she exclaims on the cover, "I can be anything!" that’s exactly what Rosenstiehl is telling her readers, shifting from cook or city planner to acrobat or vampire. It’s a strong message, but one that’s still disguised in fun. Rosenstiehl’s voice for Lilly is wonderfully accurate for a little kid; you can "hear" her as she plays by herself, coming up with a method to best act out her new job.

The art is awfully cute, too; Lilly as acrobat is a big jumble of limbs as she tries to push herself through gymnastics routine, and the stern look she gives her doll and teddy bear for not singing along to Lilly’s xylophone symphony is bretty darn funny. (Even better is how on the previous panel, the pair of toys wince she she hits a particularly loud note.) Rosenstiehl’s watercolors give the book an overall lush look, and I can’t think of a parent who wouldn’t be delighted with being given a copy of Silly Lilly in What Will I Be Today?. Like so many of Toon Books’ publications, this is a good way to start teaching little kids how to read comics, and to have fun at the same time.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

Nina in That Makes Me Mad!

By Hilary Knight
Based on a text by Steven Kroll
32 pages, color
Published by Toon Books

When I think of Hilary Knight, it’s hard to not instantly have the classic Eloise children’s books leap to mind, which he illustrated (and were written by Kay Thompson). His lush drawings of Eloise everywhere from the Plaza Hotel to Communist Russia are true treasures of the medium, the sort of fact that I think few would ever be able to disagree on. So with the release of Nina in That Makes Me Mad!, a new children’s book/comic by Hilary Knight, based off of a story by Steven Kroll? Well, to say that I was excited was an understatement. But at the same time, I was a little worried that I’d set my expectations too high.

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