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

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.

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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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