Not Just for Adults Anymore

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Art Spiegelman's "Maus" helped shift public perception of comicbooks away from mere juvenilia. Now he's trying to push it back down the age ladder again. Co-edited with his wife, Francoise Mouly, Spiegelman has produced "Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids," a comicbook for children, or more accurately, a delightful album of sophisticated, G-rated comix.

"Little Lit " (Raw Junior, LLC; 64pp; $19.95) follows the principles of last year's best-selling "Little Lit: Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies." Contributors include members of the comix "underground" as well as children's book illustrators and adult authors with no experience in the comicbook medium. These smartly-written, sumptuously colored comix then get published as a large-size hardcover collection so that even adults feel little when they turn the pages. Kids may like the fact that the hardcover makes it easier to draw on the pages.

Remarkably, many of these simple stories would just as easily belong in an adult collection. One of the biggest names in children's literature, Maurice Sendak, contributes "Cereal Baby Keller," which begins, "Josh and Irene Keller, after horrendous effort produced, finally, a baby Keller." After this nod to reproduction issues the story turns into a new-parent anxiety metaphor. But for kids it's about a big baby who eats everything, including his folks.

From Maurice Sendak's "Cereal Baby Keller" in "Little Lit"

In at least one case the stories really ride the edge of children's and adult's literature. "The Day I Disappeared," written by novelist Paul Auster and drawn by Jacques de Loustal, with its story of a man's alienation from himself seems a bit lacking in silliness for a kids book. Essayist David Sedaris' "Pretty Ugly," drawn by Ian Falconer, about a monster girl who makes a horribly cute face and gets stuck that way, hits a more child-like tone. Other contributors include Spiegelman himself, Jules Feiffer, Barbara McClintock and Kim Deitch on the secret life of cats.

Almost an activity book as well, "Little Lit" volume two contains find-the-object pages by the likes of Martin Handford ("Where's Waldo") and Richard McGuire. My favorite is Louis Trondheim's "A-Maze-ing Adventure," about a little guy who gets lost. The panels are arranged like a maze, not only presenting the story as a reflection of its contents, but also, by choosing different paths, creating different narratives. Hey kids, comix theory!

Thanks to the intelligence of editors Spiegelman and Mouly you can't be too old to appreciate "Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids." The question is how young is too young? While some of the material will be over the heads of pre-literate children, comix have a language and syntax of images that can be absorbed at a very young age. You couldn't choose a better kind of "My-First-Comix" than this.

"Little Lit: Strange Stories for Strange Kids" can be found at better comicbooks stores, and all major bookstores both real and virtual.