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Nursery Rhyme Comics

I was so much older then

Welcome! This post launches a new column, one I’ve wanted to do for years.

KinderComics will focus on visual narratives aimed at and/or depicting children, most especially comics. The impetus for this column is twofold:

  1. The recently expanded, not to say exploding, interest in children’s comics evinced by publishers, librarians, teachers, and, of course, readers and reading families.
  2. Awareness of the aesthetic and historical relations among comics, picture books, animation, and other media that weigh heavily in children’s culture.

Of course comics will outweigh other media here, as befits TCJ. However, at times I’ll divert to allied forms or genres that, again, stress visual narrative, children as a presumed audience, or the depiction of childhood. I may also discuss relevant scholarship, including criticism, history, and theory. Mainly, I expect to review comics published for children.

My interest in this area—these overlapping areas, rather—is rooted in comics but informed by my teaching and research in children’s culture, examples of which may be found here and here. I teach children’s literature at CSU Northridge, and belong to the Children’s Literature Association. For years I’ve argued that the synergy between comics and children’s books warrants a more vigorous and informed criticism, and that’s what I hope to model here. (Note that I’ll be assuming an adult readership, and, as I do when teaching children’s literature, may tackle issues some readers would prefer their young children not to read about.)

Again, welcome! My inaugural post concerns:

Nursery Rhyme Comics, cover by Vera Brosgol

Nursery Rhyme Comics. Edited by Chris Duffy; designed by Colleen AF Venable. Introduction by Leonard S. Marcus. First Second, 2011. US $18.99. 128 pages, hardcover.

Nursery Rhyme Comics boasts a stunningly diverse bunch of contributors, fifty in all, drawn from children’s books, comics, gag cartooning, and animation. All of them, as the title promises, contribute comics—one, two, or three pages long each—adapting traditional rhymes. Edited by cartoonist Chris Duffy, the book evokes his former work as the comics editor for Nickelodeon Magazine, where he assembled a terrific, ecumenical mix of cartoonists, many of them from the alternative scene. The comics section from Nickelodeon is fondly remembered for its eclecticism, good humor, and wild cartooning—qualities on view in Nursery Rhyme Comics as well. The idea for the book, we’re told, came from Lauren Wohl, marketing maven and formerly associate publisher of First Second, and of course it’s a natural. Duffy, though, has carried it forward with special care. Handsomely turned out, Nursery Rhyme Comics boasts typically sharp design from Colleen Venable, and presents a lovely, enticing object. The introduction by critic and historian Leonard S. Marcus (Minders of Make-Believe, etc.) is likely to make it even more enticing to readers steeped in children’s literature studies.

Unified design aside, Nursery Rhyme Comics is a crazy quilt of a book. Any volume that hosts—don’t hold your breath—Kate Beaton, Nick Bruel, Roz Chast, Jules Feiffer, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, David Macaulay, Patrick McDonnell, Mike Mignola, Stan Sakai, Craig Thompson, Richard Thompson, and Gahan Wilson, among many others, constitutes, first, a miraculous stunt, and, second, a bonafide event. Nursery Rhyme Comics is undeniably an editor’s project, one that bespeaks a deliberate editorial vision and no doubt involved prospecting and cajoling many, many artists. I have to say, it does pay the usual price for that: not everything in the book works equally well, and in places there are signs, frankly, of editorial overcaution. Some of the potential rawness promised by nursery rhymes has been refined away (a point I’ll return to). Yet, for all that, NRC contains a great deal of inventive, elegant, and charming work.

(Continued)


14 Responses to Nursery Rhyme Comics

  1. patrick ford says:

    Charles, Great idea for a regular column and a topic which is of particular interest to me because I have young children.

    What really got me thinking about this was reading to my kids when they were very young. As an adult you will notice right away that children’s literature often deals with the very same themes found in the most challenging adult fiction.

    A book like E.B. White’s Stuart Little can stand along side Salinger.

    And Salinger is a good measure of just how quickly children can learn to appreciate what is seen as adult literature. Kids very quickly form a solid understanding of human nature, and at a very young age they are able to read “difficult” books.

    Just recently my eight year old son was assigned Robinson Crusoe. Not surprisingly the children were assigned an abridged version of the book. Personally I can’t tolerate abridged books, so I had him read the original text. This began with some difficulty due mainly to Defoe’s sentence structure and writing style. To encourage him I read several chapters aloud to him, and sure enough he quickly became engaged by the book, and began reading it on his own.

    You may be aware of the documentary about the success Albert Cullum had teaching Shakespeare to children.
    http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/touchofgreatne

    • Patrick:

      A book like E.B. White’s Stuart Little can stand along side Salinger.

      Oh yeah. I agree completely. Sometimes students are surprised to hear me say things like,

      “So, in conclusion, Charlotte’s Web turns out to be about the power of friendship and most especially of Art to overcome or at least reconcile with the fear of death.”

      But when I say such things I stand by them. :)

      Glad you enjoyed the first installment, Patrick!

    • AJA says:

      I hate abridged books too. I thought I read The Time Machine in fourth grade, but when I picked it up again in ninth, realized that I read the abridged version.

      • patrick ford says:

        AJA, Speaking of Wells, The War of the Worlds is another my son has just read. There is enough plot in the whole book for a shorty story. The bulk of it is all descriptive. The description is not just empty decoration though, it’s key to the points Wells is trying to make about man. The amazing amount of time Wells spends describing the roiling hordes fleeing the Martians is needed to put across the message. Welles is telling us, “Look how easily man, who thinks he is far removed from other animals, is reduced to a basic animal state.”

        If you reduce Crusoe, or War of the Worlds down to an adventure story, and a science fiction story you strip them of their value.

  2. Serhend Sirkecioglu says:

    Rly good review. I’m definitely going to check this out, this looks like a good gateway comic for ages 2-4 or 5 and we need more of those. If this gets off the ground(adapted nusery ryhmes, fables and fairy tail comic anthologies for kids) this could be a good way for a young cartoonist to hone their storytelling chops. I’m wondering if D&Q would be going in this direction in the future since some of their artists are or becoming parents?

    • Thanks, Serhend, for the encouraging words. I do think we’re in the midst of a renascence in children’s comics (hence the column), so I can only echo your hopes.

      Re: gateway comics for the very young, TOON Books has made notable strides in that area, though I’m not entirely convinced by every TOON title. More on that in future installments, I think. :)

  3. Perry Nodelman says:

    If the words of “Cindereller” can insinuate something beyond the literal, then I’m wondering if a literal visual illustration of those words wouldn’t insinuate the same things. And isn’t the pleasure in the insinuation as opposed to coming out in the open with it? Might not a picture that revealed what the text insinuates undermine the apparently intended effect? Or maybe spoil some of the fun? You’re raising some interesting questions here about the relationship between words on their own meaning more than they say and how pictures can add to or change the meanings of the words.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, all!

    Perry, you raise a very good point here:

    I’m wondering if a literal visual illustration of those words wouldn’t insinuate the same things. And isn’t the pleasure in the insinuation as opposed to coming out in the open with it? Might not a picture that revealed what the text insinuates undermine the apparently intended effect?

    Of course there’s never complete redundancy between words and pictures, not even in cases where the image seems neutrally “faithful” to the text. The two media are different, and their combination never produces a mere redundancy (a point well made in Schwarcz’s Ways of the Illustrator and your own Words about Pictures). In any case, even a faithful “unpacking” of implicit meanings does not merely confirm or make obvious; its adds something, a layering, a depth or complexity, to the experience.

    In any case, I was a bit hard on Vanessa Davis’s contribution to NRC, since in general I think she’s a terrific cartoonist (I’ve reviewed her Make Me a Woman, which is excellent). The pieces in NRC that interest me most engage the rhythm of the rhymes in ways that are specific to the rhythmic possibilities of comics design—which is probably why Eleanor Davis’s “The Queen of Hearts” really stands out in my memory. That “Cindereller” doesn’t get smutty enough is perhaps a side issue. :)

    • PS @ Perry: It occurs to me that my interest in rhythmic interplay of text and image is precisely anticipated by the chapter “The Rhythms of Picture-Book Narrative” in your Words about Pictures. But what I’m really digging about NRC is its particular use of the rhythms of the comics page.

      Readers, check here for a preview of Perry’s book if you’re unfamiliar with it!

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  6. Rob Clough says:

    Charles, love the column and this review in particular. I’m one of the few comics critics that also reviews a lot of comics aimed at kids, and there have been a lot of really good ones of late (glad to see you name The Secret Science Alliance, which was an oustanding book).

    I assume one of your upcoming columns will cover the Toon Books line? The Eleanor Davis book Stinky is excellent, but just as good are the books by Geoffrey Hayes (Rory Hayes’ older brother).

    I’ll be curious to hear your take on Raina Telgemeier, as well.

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