John Hogan’s interview with Toon Books publisher and New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly moves away from easy-reader comics for a while to discuss the larger question of how that literary magazine views children’s books:
I had a conversation with a colleague at the New Yorker where I was pushing and saying how come we don’t review more children’s books and more children’s literature? The only thing I can get the New Yorker to do is a yearly paper on it, but not on a regular basis. We don’t do book reviews in general, but still, we do mention books.(I plan to discuss whether all children’s literature is genre literature in my workshop on what it means to write within genres at the SCBWI New England conference in May. But I think genres are defined by readership expectations, not limitations. And I suspect that authors who don’t write with the thought of communicating to their readers don’t get published by major presses or magazines. But back to Mouly.)
And my colleague was bluntly saying, “Well, it’s because children’s books are not real literature.”
I said, “Oh, okay. Explain that.” And he did.
He said, “Well, they are geared for a specific audience, and in literature, the author writes for himself, doesn’t have a specific audience in mind. But by definition, for children, you have to know who you are writing for and you have to take into account the limitations of your reader, and that makes it genre literature, not true literature.”
Now that’s interesting. To him, that’s obvious. To me, that made me realize even though it’s true we were specifically as editors trying to help the author come up with his or her best version of his strip, not worrying whether people would like it or how complex it might be, and that’s true for the New Yorker as well.Mouly has further interesting things to say about Jeff Smith’s Bone and Spiegelman’s Maus as unintended literature for young people, what defines a classic, and why major publishing corporations shy away from establishing new types of books.
When you work for kids, especially the Toon books, for example, you have to take into account the reading level, not just the age, but the vocabulary, and we work within those limitations. I even had a conversation with my husband [Art Spiegelman], who wasn’t at first that interested in having to do something for kids because of those limitations. It’s only when he did it that he realized it’s akin to doing formal poetry. You have a set of limitations; you can only do your sonnet with so many beats—but then within that there is room for art.