Françoise Mouly is one brilliant woman. She’s been on a roll since founding TOON Books in 2008, and now she’s received the Smithsonian’s “Ingenuity Award” for her work in education! On November 12, Jeff MacGregor for Smithsonian online interviewed Mouly about her “comic book hero” image, and she shared her inspiration for the press and her brilliant understanding of children.
The idea for TOON Books sprung out of Mouly’s experiences learning English (she’s a native French speaker) and when she became a mother, she realized how beneficial comics are when you are learning a language: “it’s almost like sketching out language for you. . . . Reading is making meaning out of squiggles, but the thing with comics is that no one has ever had to teach a child how to find Waldo.” Though the big houses rejected her queries to create high-quality and smart comics, Mouly persevered and eventually TOON Books was created. Now, Mouly is glad that she’s not attached to a large press, because she has the freedom to “make books happen without having to explain and justify.”
The key to Mouly’s success as a publisher is her keen insight into the minds of children and her respect for their learning styles and interests. Specifically, their natural penchant for re-reading books: “Kids naturally want you to read them the same book every single night. . . . they get something different every time. . . .The ambition is not to make something that will want to be read, but to make something that can be reread.”
The Smithsonian interview calls Mouly a “transformative figure in the history of comics,” partly because she has made it okay for teachers to use comics in the classroom, and because she has melted away the stigma against comics. TOON Books is simply a work of love for Mouly, especially because she gets to work with her husband, artist Art Spiegelman: “most people are asked to separate their private lives from their work lives. I am so privileged that my work life is what I love and I love what I do in my work.” Even though Mouly modestly refuses to call herself a hero, she certainly is one in the eyes of many.