Children's books and comics share a greater bond than I think most readers realize. I'm not talking about subject material here, but rather the actual form of storytelling. Children's picture books are more often than not a series of images matched with words, the two working in unison to tell a story. Sound familiar? When Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman launched the Little Lit anthologies, in which comic artists and children's book authors alike told stories for kids in comic book format, it was a perfect bridge between the two mediums. Now, Mouly's new Toon Books line takes that a step further, with individual books meant for younger readers that are told in a comic book format.
Geoffrey Hayes's "Benny and Penny: Just Pretend" is aimed for readers four years and up, so if you're expecting a deeply complex, intricate story with huge twists and turns you'll be a bit disappointed. That doesn't mean that Hayes dumbs down his story, though, just that he's recognizing what his target age group will easily follow and enjoy. Benny and Penny are both young mice who are playing outside. Benny wants to play pirates, while Penny just wants to do whatever Benny does. Of course, Benny doesn't want to do anything with his little sister. But no matter what Benny does, he just can't shake Penny's attention or affection.
It's a fun little story, and Hayes does a great job of making his characters feel like children; while Benny is the supposedly tough older brother, he's still scared of bugs and lizards, and at times his logic is so childlike it's hard not to laugh at the situations. Anyone who's had an adoring admirer like Penny will certainly see just how accurate a depiction Hayes did of her, and Hayes is able to make the reader both understand why Benny is so frustrated with her tagging along as well as sympathize and really love Penny's devotion. Best of all, though, is how well Benny and Penny feel like siblings; Benny knows just what will push Penny's buttons and does so masterfully, and the love/hate cycle that moves through Benny's emotions is just about perfect.
I have to admit, though, that it was Hayes' beautiful art that really made Benny and Penny stand out for me. His colored pencils are just gorgeous to look at, rich in detail and shading, and his mice are nothing short of adorable. Going back through the book, I see new details every time; the purple hints inside their house through the windows, the many different colors in the dirt and grass (rather than a single shade of brown or green), or the dejected expression on Benny's face when he can't figure out what happened to Penny. It's a real joy to look at.
Older readers are understandably not the target audience for "Benny and Penny", but that doesn't mean it should be off their radar. I know quite a few children in the target audience that will be getting a copy of "Benny and Penny" for their birthdays this year, for starters. And let's face it, if I'm going to be reading a book to kids, "Benny and Penny" is definitely a great one to choose. It's easy to see why "Benny and Penny" is one of the three launch titles for the Toon Books line; it's a winner, there's no doubt about that.