McSweeney’s brings irreverent style to children’s books

"Because expectations are so low with the genre, you can be experimental and have  wild, creative fun with it," says Brian McMullen, the editorial and artistic director of the children's book imprint, McMullens. Credit: Katie McMullen
“Because expectations are so low with the form, you can be experimental and have wild, creative fun with it,” says Brian McMullen, the editorial and artistic director of the children’s book imprint, McSweeney’s McMullens. Credit: Katie McMullen

A funny thing happened to the publishing company McSweeney’s: Children began to appear. Just as their fan base started to think about procreating, so did the tight-knit staff, which publishes the quarterly literary journal “Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern,” the monthly magazine “The Believer,” an assortment of book imprints and other upscale, stylized publications.

“We’re a small staff, and a lot of us were in our early 20s when we started working at McSweeney’s,” recounts Brian McMullen, who started working for the operation in 2002 as an intern. “McSweeney’s has always been eclectic; it’s always been open to publishing any kind of book irrespective of genre. The only real qualifying thing (to have us publish it) is that it’s interesting to us as editors and as readers.”

And what slowly became interesting to the full-time staff of nine were children’s books. “We found ourselves saturated in children’s literature more than we used to be,” McMullen remembers. Since its launch, McSweeney’s would publish an occasional children’s book here and there, but once they saw the commercial and artistic appeal of them, they decided to devote an imprint solely to publishing creative, interesting kids books. And so, under the guidance of McMullen, the McSweeney’s McMullens children’s imprint was born. Its first book came out in the summer of 2011 and as of next month, it’ll have published 12 picture books and three novels.

As the editors soon discovered, children’s books are very fitting with the McSweeney’s brand. “There’s so much potential with a picture book,” says McMullen, who notes he has an invaluable, in-house marketing focus group for his books: his two sons, ages 5 and 3. “I’ve always been an editor and a designer, so I’ve always loved working with the push and the pull of the editorial and the art and design side of the book; I love being able to see the whole thing at once, thinking about the shape and the size and how the story should go and what the art should be all about,” he says.

Below, McMullen, now the editorial and art director of the imprint, discusses some of his favorite books, all of which are available at your favorite bookstore or online.

 

“The Night Riders” by Matt Furie

"The Night Riders" by Matt Furie.
“This is a wonderful, wordless picture book. Furie took an entire year to draw it by hand with colored pencil. I think half the customers of that book are people who bought it as a coffee-table book because they love the art so much. They’re treating it almost like a monograph. There’s a lot of slippage sometimes between what’s an art book and what’s a book for kids. I think a lot of the books we’re producing get classified as both.”

 

“Crabtree” by Jon and Tucker Nichols

"Crabtree" by Jon and Tucker Nichols.
“Crabtree” by Jon and Tucker Nichols

“This is probably our best-reviewed and best-distributed book yet. Tucker Nichols is a gallery artist in San Francisco; he worked with his brother Jon on this, their first kid’s book together. Tucker uses his style that he uses for all of his artwork, which usually hangs in galleries, on this book for kids. It’s very funny, witty and so re-readable. It’s just a beautiful book all about a guy who is an intensive collector and he has to go through all of his belongings and try to find his missing false teeth. At a glance, sometimes our books get misconstrued as being primarily art books, and it can be enjoyed on that level, but our first goal is to please the children in our lives and be able to hand them something that we’re proud to sit down and read with them or give to somebody who can sit down and read with their child.”

 

“Hang Glider and Mud Mask” by Jason Jägel and Brian McMullen

"Hang Glider and Mud Mask" by Brian McMullen with art by Jason Jagel.
“Hang Glider and Mud Mask” by Brian McMullen with art by Jason Jagel

“This is a book I wrote with art by Jason Jägel. It’s a book constructed in a Z shape; it has two spines. It’s essentially a book you can start reading from either end and has a looping narrative. You can start from one end and get one character’s side of the story or you can start from the other side of the book and get the other character’s side of the story. The characters meet in the physical middle of the book; it’s a very sweet narrative and you can keep reading it in a continuous loop with your child until they get tired of reading it. We try to be very playful with our formats. With picture books, you can be so inventive and playful. It’s probably the best form of any kind of book for visual storytelling. It’s a fantastic art form, and I think we’re only going to see more and more of an appreciation of it as the years go by.”



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