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Reviewed byLeonard S. Marcus
What is there about Comics that makes children like them so well?" An exasperated schoolteacher posed this question in an article from the 1940s chronicling the uphill battle she and her colleagues were then waging against comic books, which they considered sub-literary fare. The battle lines have long since been redrawn, the graphic novel having attained critical mass and the comics aesthetic having slowly inched its way toward children's literature respectability on the backs of occasional forays into the genre by Maurice Sendak and others, and of more sustained efforts such as the Little Lit series edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. Now New Yorkerart director Mouly, with Spiegelman as in-house adviser, takes the field again with the release of the first three titles from Toon Books, an innovative line of early readers presented in comics format.
On the evidence of Rosenstiehl's initial contribution, Dick and Jane may now pack up their things and leave town for good. In this little marvel of distilled storytelling, five wee seasonal vignettes, starting and ending with spring, place a spry young girl in familiar situations that give free rein to her curiosity and love of action. As Lilly plays in the park, finds a snail at the shore, samples a basket of apples, hurls snowballs and swings on a swing, her bright thoughts and warblings appear overhead in speech balloons, in words of one to three syllables. Twice, a teddy bear serves as the straight man; in the winter scene, for example, he impassively takes a snowball on the chin ("Oops! Sorry, Teddy! I was only kidding!"). This comic moment, like others thatRosenstiehl extracts from her rigorously pared-down materials, draws us directly into Lilly's emotional world, where attention is routinely paid to everything, from a lowly dandelion on up. To know Lilly is to want to know what she has to say.
Lilly, who is already familiar to children of the author's native France as Mimi Cracra, is Little Lulu with dance lessons. Apple-cheeked and graceful, she's nobody's fool, and her expressive action poses double as telltale clues to the child poised to begin decoding the printed word independently. Rosenstiehl's uncomplicated layouts-two panes of equal size per page, four per spread-and minimalist backdrops likewise keep the focus where it belongs: on the adventure of taking the measure of everyday things, whether it be a tiny sea creature washed up by a wave or the words "I'm flying." Ages 4-up. (Apr.)
Leonard S. Marcus is most recently the author ofMinders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature (Houghton Mifflin, May).Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.