There's no question that Françoise Mouly's publishing company, Toon Books, has had a direct hand in revolutionizing the children's book market. It has done so partly just by being successful: In addition to earning over eighty awards and nominations, the line has been expanded, adding a "Toon Graphics" category designed to appeal to readers seven and over. In interviews, Mouly has said that she tried to sell these books to a variety of publishers over a decade ago, but no one bit. According to her, Random House wanted to do them as traditional comic books, releasing 36 a year, and Mouly turned it down. Many publishers said they liked the books, but didn't know how they would sell them. Amazingly, no one had thought to introduce a line of comics directly aimed at young readers.
Mouly had co-edited several RAW's "Little Lit" books and had a good grasp on what worked and what didn't. What sets Toon Books apart from other children's books is the attention they lavish on production and design. They are attractive, eye-catching objects that are just the right size for a child to hold. They are reminiscent of Little Golden Books in that regard, almost begging to be opened, read, and then treasured on a shelf. The newest direction for the line is an attempt to increase their appeal to Latinx readers. Argentinian cartoonist Liniers has published a couple of books for Toon that have been translated into Spanish, but it wasn't until Toon approached Jaime Hernandez and asked him to choose some folktales specific to Latin America that a real effort to court Latinx readers began.
Hernandez was a perfect choice, not just because he's one of the best craftsmen in comics, but specifically because he has always excelled at drawing children. That is a real problem for a number of cartoonists, who essentially draw small adults instead of understanding what children look like and especially how they move. At the same time, Hernandez has drawn plenty of genre-related stories, from the early days of Maggie the Mechanic encountering dinosaurs to the outer space adventures of Rocky & Fumble to the more recent superhero shenanigans of the Ti-Girls. This assignment was just a mild "change of pace" from his usual Locas narratives, as he says in the book's bio.
He selected three stories from a larger text to adapt. The first, "The Dragon Slayer", carries the most immediate moral of being kind and generous to everyone without expectation of reward. The youngest of three daughters is kicked out of her house after her jealous older sisters make it seem like she stole money from their father. Walking down a long road, she encounters an odd-looking traveler and shares her lunch with her. The traveler gives her a magic wand that can tell her anything she needs to know. That plot device helps her get a job in the castle, slay a dragon, save the prince with a magic ring, and wind up marrying him. Hernandez's monsters and giants are impressive enough, but the real attraction in this story is the way he uses his characters' eyes to do most of the visual narrative's heavy lifting. Even if the story had been silent, the size and shape of the eyes in each panel would have been sufficient in guiding the reader across the page. Throw in his powerful use of gesture and slightly buffoonish character design given to nearly everyone but the girl and the prince, and one finds that the text is almost an afterthought.
"Martina Martinez and Perez the Mouse" feels like Hernandez dipping his toe in territory more often covered by his brother, Gilbert. This tale of life in a small town feels like a story set in Gilbert's Palomar, with details of the way the houses were built conjuring up a place that feels lived in. Of course, the central narrative involves a beautiful young woman (the titular Martina) rejecting a series of anthropomorphic animals before going out with the titular mouse, leading to their marriage. When the mouse finds himself literally in a stew, she runs out crying, starting a classic fairy tale progression. The birds ask her why she's crying, and then cut off their beaks to show their sorrow. A dove asks them why they cut off their beaks, leading it to cut off its tail. Also involved is a fountain and a girl with her water jug, who tells her mother. The mother asks the reasonable question of who's taking care of the mouse, which leads her to save him. It's a funny punchline, urging one to not waste time on tears when action can be taken.
"Tup and the Ants" is the funniest story and has the most dubious moral ("If you learn how to delegate, you can be lazy"). A lazy guy named Tup is sent out with his industrious but dumb brothers by their father-in-law to plant the cornfields. A note in the afterword mentions that this story was often told as a fun way to explain exactly how farming corn worked to young people. While his brothers work, Tup sleeps, only to find that ants have stolen their food. He threatens the ants to either give him his food back or else do his work for him, so they choose the latter. While his brothers manage to continually mess up (cutting holes in trees instead of cutting them down, for example), Tup makes a deal with the ants every time to do his work while he slept. In the end, Tup is rewarded after having abuse heaped on him in the rest of the story.
What makes the story work is Hernandez's tireless efforts in varying his storytelling just enough to make each page different. In a story that's filled with boring backgrounds like cornfields, Hernandez doubles down on exaggerated character design and facial expressions. Their father-in-law doesn't just yell: he pulls his hat over his head in exasperation, with a single tooth showing and sweat beads flying from his head. The disapproving mother-in-law doesn't just frown: her mouth is an unyielding upside-down parabola. She's actually a dead ringer for the Gilbert Hernandez character Boots, another sly nod to the Palomar stories. Tup isn't merely lazy and sleepy: his massive eyelids are constantly half-closed. The queen of the ants wears a jaunty crown on her head and her subjects are drawn with just enough variety (despite their tiny size) to keep the eye locked in on the page.
The fact that Hernandez chose stories that aren't strictly morally instructive, but instead convey other kinds of information, simply make people laugh, or act as shaggy dog stories makes this volume especially enjoyable. Seeing his work in color is a special treat (the colorist is Ala Lee) that likely allowed him to work a little looser here than in his usual Love and Rockets stories. Hernandez has always used women as his protagonists, so it seems natural for two of the three stories to focus on female characters. Throw in the historical context behind each of the stories in the afterword, and you have yet another alternative cartoonist make a smooth jump to the Toon Books line.