January 18, 2010

American Library Association

“Author and Illustrator Geoffrey Hayes is the 2010 recipient of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for BENNY AND PENNY IN THE BIG NO-NO! published by TOON BOOKS. The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award is given to the author and illustrator of the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year. The award is named for the world-renowned children’s author, Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Award winners are recognized for their literary and artistic achievements that demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.

BENNY AND PENNY IN THE BIG NO-NO! is a perfect example of a graphic novel designed just for young readers. Siblings Benny and Penny encounter trouble when curiosity about a mysterious neighbor leads them into unexpected adventures. The characters’ emotions are revealed in the rich artwork within each panel. Children will connect with the realistic dialogue and page-turning appeal of the story.”

“The real big ‘no-no’ would be to miss the distinctive beginning graphic novel with perfectly matched text and illustrations,” said Geisel Award Committee Chair Susan Veltfort.”

Acceptance Speech

For a time when I was in grade school, our classes would disperse on Friday afternoons to various “clubs.” There was the Science Club, the Glee Club, the History Club, the Drama Club, and so on. My first choice was always the Drama Club. I was big on theatre and had starred in two school plays, so this seemed like a no-brainer, but to my extreme frustration, I was never put in the Drama Club. I thought, “Don’t they know who I am?” Instead, I always got my second choice: the Library Club. Once I got past my initial disappointment, I did love the Library Club. We learned about the Dewey Decimal system; we shelved books; we read them and wrote reviews. Best of all, I was exposed to titles I might not otherwise have known about.

The books in the school library were different from the Little Golden Books I had at home – here were books with hard covers, with black and white or two-color illustrations, books that had color plates “tipped” in. Some seemed old-fashioned –“Angus and the Ducks”; some seemed magical – Wanda Gag’s “Snow White”; others were simply fun, like “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” and “To Think That I saw it on Mulberry Street” by a fellow with the curious name of “Dr. Seuss.” Doctors could also write books? I wondered if he wrote them in between seeing patients.

How could I have imagined then, that one day I’d receive an award named in Dr. Seuss’s honor given by the American Library Association? After all, this library business, enjoyable as it was, was just something to keep me occupied until I could become an actor.

Reading aloud was a nightly ritual in our house. Our mother read classics such as Winnie-the-Pooh, Raggedy Ann and Andy, and Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” to my brother and me, but on our own we read comic books. Our parents, to their credit, never implied that comic books were inferior forms of literature. They simply encouraged us to read what we liked. Comics were cheap and prolific and what’s more, they were written with kids in mind. I was too young to have seen Walt Kelly’s Fairy Tale Parade or his Christmas With Mother Goose, but I read Classics Illustrated, as well as many Funny Animal comics, movie adaptations, Little Lulu, Dennis the Menace, and Dick Tracy. Rory and I probably learned to read as much from comics as from anything else. The first creative writing we undertook was to make our own comics. Comics led me away from the dream of acting and into the world of writing.

By the time I became an adult, the comics I grew up with had disappeared, due to the media furor against comics unleashed by Dr. Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, and the mid-Fifties comic book burnings and Congressional hearings that followed. This was the heyday of Marvel and DC, but I had no interest in superheroes. Instead I put comics on the back burner and channeled my creativity into children’s books. I began to call myself an “illustrator,” and to work in watercolor and pen and ink. In 1980 I actually did a comic book for HarperCollins called “Elroy and the Witch’s Child.” But the climate was not receptive to comics, and it didn’t do well. Later, I tried incorporating comic book conventions such as word bubbles into my picture books, only to conclude that hybrids are ultimately unsatisfying. What I longed to do was a full-fledged comic like the kind I grew up reading.

So, five years ago, when Francoise Mouly asked if I’d like to be a part of a new series she was planning called TOON Books (TOON Into Reading it was called then), which were an original idea, Beginning Readers in comic book form, I jumped at the chance. I had seen and admired the Little Lit series that she and her husband Art Spiegelman had done, and wondered why my art wasn’t included. I saw myself as a comics artist, but how could anyone else know that, with over forty traditional children’s books to my credit? Well, it turns out, Francoise knew. She had relished reading some of my early books with her small children, and she sensed the closet cartoonist screaming to get out.

Happily, I had learned much about what makes a good children’s book and was eager to apply what I’d learned to this new venture. During the next couple of years as the TOON books took shape we worked hard to ensure that everything — the font size, the page layouts, the language and the stories made them books that children would want to read and re-read. After that, came the equally challenging task of having TOON Books accepted as legitimate Readers, instead of seeing them dismissed as sub-literature, or being lost among the new kind of Graphic Novels, definitely not for children.

Fortunately for us, librarians are a savvy bunch. You have been the first ones willing to break boundaries and overcome prejudices, the first to see the value of well-written and well-edited comics for children and the first to recognize the impact these books can have on their future reading habits. That’s why a Toon book receiving the “Geisel” is especially significant. It affirms that you see and appreciate what we have been trying to do. I say “we” because “Benny and Penny in the Big No-No” is not a stand-alone title. If it’s good, it’s because the collection itself is so good.

In fact, nothing I have done, I’ve done alone. Throughout my career, my first editor and long-time agent Edite Kroll’s persistence has kept me focused, her editing skills have honed my craft, and her belief in me has been unswerving. Francoise Mouly has restored me to creative life through my love of comics. She is justly famous for her taste and talent, but I value her even more for her love of family and friends and her dedication to improving children’s literacy. And finally, it would be a big no-no not to give a word of thanks to the ever-creative Art Spiegelman for his friendship, his generosity and for coming up with the title.

Still, I reserve some space for personal satisfaction and am pleased to pieces that you have awarded me this honor. It seems those grade school teachers knew who I was better than I did. And although my young actor self would probably chafe at the thought, how truly gratifying it is to know that I am still a part of the Library Club.

Thank you so much.

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