Toon Books, Francoise Mouly’s early-reader graphic novel imprint, brings artsy fare for the toddler set to a new level—impeccable illustration, richly printed colors, quality book construction, and simple stories told primarily through imagery. Hearts is exemplary of this, almost to distraction. It almost feels like a waste to hand it over to a messy, page-ripping, crayon-wielding tiny person. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I think it depends on the hand that holds the tome.
On one hand, Hearts is lovely. It’s the story of Penelope the fox, who loses her heart (literally) when her best friend takes off in a rocket ship to space, and her quest to get it back again—sort of an abridged version of Goodbye Chunky Rice or Robot Dreams. Penelope’s wild-heart chase takes her through the sea, to a spooky royal palace, and into the big city. Most of the story is wordless and takes place in panels that actively pour into one another. The heart tumbles from a dolphin’s beak to a seagull’s mouth to a paper airplane’s wing and on and on. The settings are both identifiable and fanciful, ripe for a child to fill with their own imagination. Perfectly geometric trees repeat, triangular shark teeth chomp, and castle turrets devised of nothing but rectangles, diamonds, and symmetrical squiggles offer a sense of harmony. It’s playful, simple, and direct, a complete story with very few words and lots of room for a child to roam.
There is much to be said for such a lovely, simple story. On the other hand, it may be too pretty, and too deliberate. Is that possible? I think it depends on the viewer—for me, it felt precious to the point of being greeting card ready, albeit the kind you get at that cute local hipster store. The geometric symmetries and visual repetitions of the panels felt static to me, and the color palette seemed purely aesthetic rather than story-driving—almost making the story come off as emotionally flat, which is unfortunate for a story about emotional longing. I think some kids, especially miniature aesthetes, might respond very well to the particular look and feel of Hearts, and even be inspired in their own visual storytelling by it, while others may say meh, and move on to more kid-coddling fare.
All in all, Hearts takes a chance with a very specific aesthetic vision, and doesn’t quite hit the mark of combining a bold visual appeal with a dynamic story, but it is lovely to look at and may inspire more visually sensitive kids to explore their own aesthetic visions.
by Thereza Rowe
TOON Books, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 4 – 8 years