Francoise Mouly

by Simon Tyler

We spoke to the founder of TOON Books


Francoise Mouly

We were delighted to recently interview the legendary Francoise Mouly. Francoise is the founder, publisher and Editorial Director of New York-based TOON Books. She is also the Art Editor of the New Yorker. Her husband is the cartoonist and graphic artist Art Spiegelman, who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize Letters award for his book Maus. We love TOON books and will be reviewing some of them shortly.

Which children’s books made a particular impression on you as a young girl?

FM – I remember working hard all year long to win my elementary school’s Prix d’Excellence, a large hardcover book of illustrated fairy tales. I treasured that book for years, spending hours with the pictures, trying to get as much as I could from each one. Then I inherited my uncle’s library, with books by Dumas and Jules Verne bound in embossed red leather. I also remember collections meant for kids—I don’t remember any of the books, but I remember vividly how proud I was when I graduated from the Pink (I had read them all) to the Green collection. Within a couple of years, I started reading the “pocket books” (livres de poche) that were available at my corner bookstore, and decided I’d also read them all. There were hundreds, but I pretty much made it, the foundation of my literary knowledge.

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How did your artistic career begin?

FM – I was actually groomed to be a doctor, a surgeon. But I rebelled and went to study architecture at the Beaux-Arts. When I came to New York in 1974 (I was taking a year off from school but ended up staying a lifetime,) I fell in with a milieu of artists. My roommate was a would be painter, but I was put off by the staging of one’s self and work involved in showing work to galleries—I was always more comfortable with art for a purpose. After I met Art, an underground cartoonist at the time, my interest in printing led me to buy a multilith press. I founded Raw Books and Graphics, my small press, through which I published and printed street maps, postcards, and small books featuring the work of artists I admired. Having a press was a dream come true. I could conceive of a project, design it, and actually bring it to life by myself. It allowed me to take everything from start to finish. 

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How did you first get involved in comic art?

FM – I grew up in France, where everyone reads comics, Asterix, Tintin, and weeklies like Pilote and Spirou. When I moved to the US and began studying English in earnest, I asked around for comics so I could improve my still very poor English. Friends gave me issues of Arcade, an underground comix coming out of San Francisco. I connected to the strips so much. Through Arcade, I met Art Spiegelman, and fell in love with him, and with his ideas about comics. The way he saw it, there was so much that hadn’t been done yet in comics— that’s what made me want to publish what no one else would touch. One of our slogans was: “Comics—they aren’t just for kids anymore.”

You and your husband Art have been very influential in the rise of the comic and graphic novel as a major genre – could you tell us a little about the days of RAW and the amazing reception that Maus received?

FM – The first issue of RAW Magazine came out in 1980, and we continued publishing RAW into 1991-92. Our goal with the magazine was to gather the best of what was happening internationally in comics and graphics, to make a beautiful object to show that comics could be used to do serious works. We published artists who had no venues anywhere else, such as Charles Burns, Gary Panter, and Sue Coe. We also published work of Europeans like Jacques Tardi, Joost Swarte, Ever Meulen, Mariscal, and Lorenzo Mattotti. And we published what Art was working on, Maus, one chapter in every issue (I was doing only one issue a year.) When Maus was published as a book, first volume in 1987, the second in 1992, it met with such enormous critical praise (including a special Pulitzer Prize) that it changed the perception of comics far beyond our goals. You could, with a straight face, say that you were a cartoonist, and people wouldn’t laugh at you. Comics were in bookstore and libraries and museums, and the medium attracted a whole new generation of talented creators, and then other publishers came along, like Drawn and quarterly in Canada, who took on the mantle.

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How did the idea for TOON come about? 

FM – The success we had with comics in our own family prompted me. We had become parents of children who became fluent readers, but each at their own pace. While it was easy and fast for our daughter, it took much longer for our son. For him, reading comics was an essential part of keeping us committed. He loved reading as long as it was comics. I think it’s because the visual flow allowed him to ‘drive’, to be in control. I read French comics and Art read Walt Kelly’s Fairy Tale Parade, the Dell comics of the forties, or Carl Barks. I noticed his friends only read comics when they came to our home; there were not enough good comics for kids being published at the time. All of a sudden, I realized every cartoonist I knew was trying to do a serious ‘graphic novel’, but no one was paying attention to kids comics. The very success of comics as a serious medium threatened their existence as something kids could grow up with. I tried to talk all the publishers I knew into it, then decided to go back to my self-publishing roots. My kids’ gateway to literacy was comics and I wanted to open that door for many more kids.

How challenging has it been to translate the comic format to the reading level of the youngest readers you cater for, which I think is around 4?

FM – On the contrary, it hasn’t been a challenge at all. Comics’ visual narrative is implicitly understandable even when you don’t understand the words. Good comics have intertwined narratives, so pictures and words reinforce each other and because comics contain so much information that is communicated visually, they’re a perfect point of entry into literacy.
The whole learning to read process is complex, but it’s clear that visual literacy and comics are a perfect step-up into reading.

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How does the creative process work at TOON? At what point do you find yourself running ideas and illustrations past kids of the age the books are intended for?

FM – First, the artist comes up with a good story. We work with the artists so we can get down the character development and the story flow and the page turns. Once we have the visual flow, we run it by the various teachers and educators who vet it for specific vocabulary. I’ve been very lucky to have access to phenomenal teachers— one of them, Cindy, who teaches in Brooklyn, has taught the same grade for the past 20-plus years. She knows that phase of development. It’s second nature to her. She knows exactly which words and consonant blends young readers struggle with, and she lets us know what in the vocabulary needs to be made clearer. We go to schools and show the sketches to kids who are at the right reading level. We want to check how fluently they read the text, but we also want to watch them read in order to fine-tune the visual storytelling.

Your daughter is now an accomplished comic artist too – it must’ve been a very creative household?

FM – Yes, our daughter, Nadja Spiegelman, is the author of TOON Books Zig and Wikki in Something Ate My Homework and Zig and Wikki in the Cow. And she was the Associate Editor on my book of New Yorker covers and she created the whole online outreach for it, which was wildly successful. I’m especially tickled that we managed to work together for almost two years and still love each other. It’s hard to work with a spouse, or with a friend, and maybe even harder to work with one’s child. But the credit should go to Nadja: she was was so eager to learn, so good at it. Plus she instantly transformed any new knowledge into her own thing—it’s been hugely satisfying.

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What advice would you give parents with creative kids? What do you think is the best way to encourage without stifling their personal style?

FM – I never consciously tried for it, but recently both our kids said that they felt privileged to have been encouraged to do their own thing, to take risks and not fear failing. They had terrific teachers in elementary school, and the foundations for caring, hardworking and responsible adults were laid then. I also think they were lucky to have two parents who are college dropouts. We’re willing to pay for college, but always insisted they should focus on doing things, or taking classes they were interested in, and never worry about grades.

Can you recommend any up-and-coming graphic novelists that we should look out for?

FM – At TOON, I publish some of the best up-and-coming comics artists I know. We just released a debut graphic novel from David Nytra, who is a genius at creating beautiful imaginary worlds. And Frank Viva, the author of A Trip to the Bottom of the World, and a designer I first published on the cover of the New Yorker, is doing some of the most exciting children’s book nowadays. I also edited Best American Comics this year, which offered the opportunity to spotlight both established and upcoming artists like Nora Krug, Dakota McFadzean, or Jesse Jacobs.

As a long-time resident of New York, do you have any recommendations for visiting families looking to do something different?

FM – Walk around—cities are great for walking. Sit at a café terrace, and just look at the people passing by; try to guess their story, where they’re from. Go to Astoria, or some of the otherworldly neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. You can go around the whole world with our subway. The promenades along the Hudson, the East River under the bridges, are wonderful places for family bike rides (there are bike rental places.) Take the ferry, then walk or bike in Staten Island. Of course, no visit to New York would be complete without a trip to the American Museum of Natural History. And for kids who love to read, take them to McNally Jackson Bookstore, Greenlight Bookstore, the Strand, or various B&N, and to all the city’s public libraries. Most are set up to let kids sit down and take reading breaks.

Cathy from Anorak magazine added this question. At Anorak, we love comics, and deplore the fact they are often considered the poor cousins of story-telling/publishing. In your opinion, what does the comics art form achieve that picture books or wordy books don’t?

FM – Comics truly are a natural fit for the needs of young readers. They learn reading from left to right and top to bottom. They learn sequencing and linear storytelling. Looking at speech balloons, they understand that written dialogue is a transcription of spoken language. The visual language requires a lot of sophisticated inference, metaphors, and associations, but it trains young readers to focus and extract the story juice out of a book. The instant kids get their hands on our books, they’re hooked; the real challenge has been convincing reluctant adults that the comic format helps their children!

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