The Ever-Playful McSweeney's Enters a New Game: Children's Books

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Dave Eggers's publishing house is expanding to include McSweeney's McMullens, a new division aimed at producing whimsical picture books for children.

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Dave Eggers's eccentric literary brand McSweeney's has become a media empire with books, magazines (The Believer, Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Lucky Peach), DVDs, a humor website, and even whimsical retail outlets and writing schools. Children's books are its newest venture, with the launch of the imprint McSweeney's McMullens. Directed by Brian McMullen, McSweeney's art director and an editor in San Francisco, the first illustrated books aimed at youths started rolling off the presses this year.

The foray into picture books should come as no surprise: McSweeney's has long been defined, in part, by its visuals. Eggers studied painting and illustration in college, and in McSweeney's 14 years of operation, he's worked with a wide and diverse group of young artists, comics artists, and designers. As McMullen recently told me of Eggers, "I think these books make him happy."

McSweeney's McMullens' success or failure will largely depend on how well it differentiates itself from the publishing mainstream. But given the company's history, that may not be a problem. "In what might be called typical McSweeney's fashion, we don't spend a lot of time thinking about niches," McMullen said. "McSweeney's McMullens is open to publishing books of any and all genres and formats. Concerns like theme and target age range are secondary to questions like, 'Is this project interesting to us? Do we think it will interest a child? Will we be proud, when the book is printed, to sit down and share it with the children we know?'" And, he adds, the firm will publish the occasional beloved out-of-print books.

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Playful design is a big part of all McSweeney's projects, which have often used graphic design and paper engineering to enhance content and interactively engage the audience. McMullen wants that same ethos applied to the kids' books, but would like to avoid "zany, crazed typography—like the uneven, crooked, faux-3D lettering seen everywhere on products aimed at children."

One book has heat-sensitive, color-changing ink on the cover and on every page. Another can be read front-to-back or back-to-front.

"We're attracted to clean, easy-to-understand page compositions," he said. "A feeling of effortless legibility is great. It's OK if a given page has a lot of detail, as long as the overall feel is one of control, or at least respect for the reader's experience... When it comes to type styling, less is usually more. The type should never, ever feel like it impinges on the artwork."

The project began in 2010 with McMullen and Eggers asking writers and artists they'd admired "if they might have any kids'-book ideas up their sleeves," McMullen said. Some of the creators who responded, like Sheila Heti (author of We Need a Horse) and Arthur Bradford (author of Benny's Brigade'), had been involved with McSweeney's since the early days of the Quarterly. Amy Martin, the writer and illustrator of Symphony City, had done a suite of time-travel posters for the LA chapter of McSweeney's writing school 826 Valencia.

Also on the first list was Matt Furie's wordless picture book, The Night Riders, which was developed after he illustrated Quarterly issue No. 36, the "head-box" issue (whose design is pretty much what "head-box" implies: a magazine within a box that looks like a head). McMullen's son, who was not quite three years old at the time, was so mesmerized by the head that he would constantly pull it off the shelf and sift through the pages. From that, The Night Riders was born.

"Meeting and working with new artists is one of the most fun parts of publishing," McMullen said. "We're not against working with people who have prior experience in children's literature—we're publishing J. Otto Seibold's next picture book, Lost Sloth, in the spring, for example—but prior experience isn't really a special attraction."

The current list of releases is fairly expansive. Jordan Crane's Keep Our Secrets is a board book with heat-sensitive, color-changing ink on the cover and on every page. When the black-silhouetted illustrations throughout the book are rubbed vigorously—or heated with a hairdryer, as the cover suggests—the black ink becomes transparent for a little while, revealing a whole hidden world. After the ink cools off, it returns to black and re-hides all the secrets until the next time the book is read. Here Comes the Cat by Frank Asch (an American) and Vladimir Vagin (a Russian) is a newly designed 25th-anniversary reissue of a book originally published in 1986, near the end of the Cold War. The book starts off with a mouse on the outskirts of a city who sees a cat coming—way off in the distance—and becomes hysterical. He runs back to town yelling, "Here comes the cat!" Soon, every mouse in the town is yelling, "Here comes the cat!" at one another until the whole city is panicked. When the cat finally arrives, he's pulling a giant wheel of cheese. The book ends with a big cheese-eating, milk-drinking celebration between the cat and all the mice. It's a suspenseful book with a funny conclusion.

Hang Glider and Mud Mask, written and designed by McMullen and painted by Jason Jägel, is a story told in two connected halves—and can be read from front-to-back or back-to-front. One half tells the "hang glider" side of the story, in which a boy starts high in the sky and makes his way gradually to the surface of the earth. The other half of the book tells the "mud mask" side of the story. A girl starts in an underground cave and gradually climbs up toward the surface of the earth. Each half of the story concludes in the center of the book, where the characters meet in an embrace.

With so much content migrating to the web, McSweeney's boldly stays loyal to print. McMullen's rationale is simple. "One thing a printed picture book still does way better than an iPad is bring parents and children together at bedtime and help everybody relax together," he said. "Backlit electronic screens can't help but stimulate, distract, buzz, and excite. That's their nature—it's what they're made for and what they're great at doing—and it's precisely these qualities that make them not so appropriate for bedtime."

As the McSweeney's fans start having children of their own, it's a good bet they will stay brand-loyal. The first printings of several of titles have already sold out, but McMullen wants to find a viable strategy for capturing the attention of the many children's librarians who are not familiar with the McSweeney's legacy. In fact, nothing would please him more than "to know that a child or a dad has stumbled upon Benny's Brigade, by accident, at the library."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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