For the complete, fascinating story on the creative people behind TOON BOOKS and the impetus for starting a line of graphic novels for beginning readers, check out my review from last year. With the release of a third Benny & Penny book, Benny & Penny and the Toy Breaker, I thought these books written and illustrated by Geoffrey Hayes deserved their own review. Also, TOON Books and Geoffrey Hayes have started Benny and Penny and Their Friends, a blog for kids where you can find comic to print and color and a weekly contest to fill in the speech/thought bubble from a new illustration by Hayes. Kids can leave comments on what they think the character is saying or thinking and Hayes will pick his favorite comments and post them. Finally, TOON has recently added a super cool new feature on their website, a Cartoon Maker! My son and I spent quite a bit of time making new pages from all the different TOON books that we love. Actually, it is so easy that my non-reading 5 year old could navigate the program himself.
In my house, all of the TOON Books are superb picture books that will some day become primers for my son when he is ready to read. I don't think that that can be said for many, if any beginning reader books. Beginning readers books are usually used read by emerging readers for that purpose alone. With the exception of the collection of TOON Books, Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books and Mo Willem's Elephant & Piggie series, I rarely if ever read a primer out loud at story time. But, all of these aforementioned are in heavy rotation at home and at the bookstore. What first drew me to Benny and Penny were the illustrations. The colorfully bright, softly shaded artwork reminded me of a cross between Beatrix Potter and the classic Tom and Jerry cartoons I watched as a kid. And, his pictures are filled with little details that kids will love, from the packing crate-pirate ship in the first book to the trail of broken toys in the third book, there is always something to seek out and inform the story that is unfolding.
On top of that, Hayes does a great job with his characters. Benny can be a bossy, know-it-all big brother and Penny can be a nosy, annoying little sister. But, the two can also be inventive, inquisitive, creative and always, by the end of the book at least, caring and connected. In the first book, the two only have to work things out between themselves. In Benny and Penny and the Big No-No, the two find themselves breaking some rules to find out where their missing toys are disappearing to, and make a new friend in the adventure.
Another aspect of Geoffrey Hayes' Benny and Penny books that I especially like is the setting. The siblings, thus far, are seen playing on their own in their backyard. Mom is never seen, but we know she is nearby and keeping an eye on the two because Benny calls out to her in the first book when he is trying to get rid of Penny by asking if it's her nap time. There is both a sense of security and a freedom to explore that Hayes creates in this backyard. There is a playhouse, a sandbox, a wading pool, a slide and a swing - things that will be familiar to most little kids. There is also a fence, a boundary that is sometimes crossed, but without major repercussions or danger.
In Benny and Penny and the Toy Breaker, a visit from Cousin Bo, the Toy Breaker, causes distress and hurt feelings for everyone. Benny and Penny rush to hide their favorite toy when they learn that Cousin Bo is coming over, but they are not fast enough. Bo manages to break a few toys and discovers the treasure map that Benny had been working on and threatens to destroy that as well. Benny and Penny try to reason with Bo and incorporate him into their play, but frustrations mount and Bo runs off, only to become stuck in a hole in the fence, things take a turn for the better.
Benny and Penny is currently available in paperback, while Benny and Penny and the Big No-No and Benny and Penny and the Toy Breaker are available in hardcover.