Kevin McCloskey is an award-winning author and artist who creates wonderfully educational comics for children. He’s published three such books, We Dig Worms!, The Real Poop on Pigeons!, and Something’s Fishy. His latest book, Snails Are Just My Speed!, is set for publication in May 2018 and we couldn’t be more excited for it. McCloskey’s publisher, TOON Books, specializes in publishing comics for children of all ages and is led by New Yorker Art Editor and comics-royalty Françoise Mouly. We caught up with Kevin to talk about his work, comics as teaching tools, and….snails.
For those unfortunate to have never heard of you, introduce yourself and your work.
I’m Kevin McCloskey. I teach illustration at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. I’ve been illustrating for decades, but my recent children’s books for TOON books have made me very popular with young readers.
What led you to create this series of “Giggle and Learn” titles for TOON Books?
My wife Patt, a librarian, was an itinerant storyteller of our Berks County Public Libraries. Each week, she built a program based on three read-aloud books. She found two good worm books and asked me to make her a third so she could do a worm story hour. The other two books were fiction, so she asked for something that was funny, but true. It wasn’t a totally preposterous request. I had success in 1992 with a picture book set in Brooklyn called Mrs. Fitz’s Flamingos. So I spent a few weeks and made a book for Patt that I called If Worms Could Talk. Other librarians used it, too, and it was popular with the children.
I made a PDF of the book and emailed it to Françoise Mouly at TOON Books. Françoise Mouly is one of America’s greatest art directors and the Art Editor of The New Yorker. Beyond that, she is the designer and publisher of TOON Books. I’ve admired her work since the days of RAW Magazine, which she co-created with her husband, Art Spiegelman. Well, I was floored when she emailed back within five hours to say that she loved the book and wanted to publish it. That said, it went through a lot of changes. For example, all TOON Book use the convention of speech bubbles, since they are essentially hardcover comics. Art Spiegelman deserves the credit for the title, We Dig Worms! Françoise designed the book beautifully and it was a hit. The New York Times called it a “winning combination of facts and gross-out fun.”
After that, I sent Françoise a proposal for fiction book. She said, no, she wanted another informational book about a misunderstood animal. Years ago, I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and met a pigeon racer named Vinnie Torre. Vinnie taught me some amazing things when I visited his rooftop loft, like the fact that pigeons produce milk! So in 2016 I made The Real Poop on Pigeons!. Kimberly Guise, the publicist at TOON, suggested the series title, “Giggle and Learn.”
Do you find that your books, and comics in general, are best used as teaching or educational tools?
Yes, indeed. I show my students a two-page spread from the classic children’s book, The Little Red Hen. You know the story: “Who will help me? ” asked the Little Red Hen. “Not I!” said the Goose. “Not I!” said the Duck. Well, if you use the comic’s convention of word balloons, all that “he said / she said” can be eliminated. The two pages in traditional picture format takes 37 words, but only 13 words in comic format. This is a big difference for a reluctant or beginning reader.
How can comics advance children’s literacy?
As Art Spiegelman says, “Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.” I work with two wonderful literacy nonprofits, Behind the Book in New York City and An Open Book Foundation in Washington, D.C. Both of these organizations bring me to schools in underserved neighborhoods. I read to the children. I listen to their ideas, and each of the children I meet gets a book to take home. I can see that the students treasure these books. It is heartwarming that my silly stories might help a youngster stay engaged in reading and enthused about basic science and natural history. I love doing school visits. In fact, when I recently stopped by Radix Media, I had just come from staging a worm race at P.S. 118, the Maurice Sendak School in Brooklyn.
Your latest book, Snails Are Just My Speed!, will be published next month. What attracted you to snails?
Two things attracted me to snails: first, I read an inspiring natural history book by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. The other thing was a print of a snail I found on eBay. It was printed in London in 1790 by F.P Nodder. This fascinating print purports to show the mating habits of snails. You can see the two snails exchanging love darts. This is exactly the sort of thing that gets me fired up. Oddly enough, though, this old print was inaccurate. Editor Richard Kutner fact-checked my snail manuscript for TOON, and it turns out snails do strike each other with so-called love darts, but the darts don’t fly through the air. The darts are more like daggers in a slow-motion knife fight. Still, I’m glad I saw that strange image as it inspired me to consider snails.
Do you have any advice for young cartoonists looking to dive into publishing?
I would start by making zines or mini-comics, then get a table at a zine fest. A table can cost a fortune at a big fest, but look around for an art space. Even my tiny college town of Kutztown has an annual zine fest with affordable tables. Some zine fests let you put out work on consignment. There are a few really useful books on becoming a cartoonist. Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Matt Madden and Jessica Abel may be the best. There are also Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice. I also recommend Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine? by Esther Watson.
What role do you see printed matter playing in comics going forward?
There are great web comics, but I expect printed comics to continue to thrive. With today’s focus on visual literacy, more children are experimenting with making comics. We already have a generation of creators who are equally comfortable creating on both platforms, digital and paper. I am going stick with paper, myself.
How can people learn more about your work?
Well, I guess they might Google me. I also blog at www.illustrationconcentration.com. Truthfully, I would rather they went with a kid to their local public library and asked to see my books.
Community Spotlight is a blog series that seeks to connect people power with print power. Each post will feature a person or organization using print and design to do great work in their community. Subscribe today and let’s start building together.