The NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan surrounding the headquarters of Phaidon Press is nothing if not bustling on a Tuesday late afternoon. The area is a commercial and retail hub, with trendy watch shops, bakeries, and even a charming haberdashery. Like much of New York City, it’s a neighborhood as steeped in history as it is up-to-the minute. Phaidon, a publisher with its own storied past, is fittingly housed in the handsome, white terracotta Bayard-Condict Building, a New York historic landmark. Yet the publisher is also moving forward in new directions. PW paid a visit to Phaidon earlier this month, to learn about the publisher’s refashioned children’s department, its current offerings, and what’s being dreamed up for the future.
While sampling homemade chocolate graham crackers in a cozy nook of the spacious Phaidon offices, children’s publishing director Cecily Kaiser and children’s art director Meagan Bennett shared the story of Phaidon’s transition into creating a full catalogue of kids’ titles. Traditionally a publisher of fine art, cookbooks, and architectural books for adults, Phaidon is “a model of global publishing,” said Kaiser. The company was founded in Europe in 1923, and while for years Phaidon had a U.S. “sales presence,” there was no physical publishing presence in America until 1998. Today, the global publisher has offices in London, New York, Paris, and Berlin. Phaidon moved its New York offices to the current Bleecker Street address in 2014.
Since 2005, Phaidon has published some children’s books with a primarily European leaning. “The line was very author-illustrator driven,” said Kaiser, including titles from Tomi Ungerer and Hervé Tullet, both of whom are extremely popular in Europe. In 2012, Phaidon came up for sale and was purchased by the family of Debra and Leon Black, chairman of the private-equity firm Apollo Global Management. Black was enthusiastic about growing the children’s wing of Phaidon, with the goal of creating a distinct new entity, while also maintaining many of the qualities that have defined Phaidon’s books since its inception.
Kaiser and Bennett both came on board in 2014, from the Appleseed imprint at Abrams (Kaiser launched the imprint), with the express purpose of building Phaidon’s children’s list, along with senior editor Maya Gartner, based in London.
Kaiser, who has a background in childhood development, began to think about target age ranges and corresponding developmental stages as entry points to conceptualizing books for the list. In keeping with Phaidon’s style, they wanted the books to be driven by a “high-concept design aesthetic.” “We want to do what’s never been seen before in unexpected, unexplored ways,” said Bennett. Their unofficial mission statement might be: “bringing non-mainstream publishing into the mainstream,” said Kaiser.
Of course, the changing face of children’s publishing has also paved the way for Phaidon to experiment with new formats and content. What would have been niche products in the past, Kaiser believes, are not considered so anymore. She specifically noted how author-illustrators like Mo Willems really cracked something open in terms of people’s expectations of what a picture book can be. While many picture books of recent decades were defined by more painterly art styles, all of a sudden, here’s “one pigeon and text bubbles” (referencing Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!) that communicated strongly with young readers. Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back was also a game-changer, Kaiser said, as it suggested that a picture book need not have a happy ending to be embraced by kids. Bennett sees this as not only an aesthetic shift in children’s books, but a psychological one as well. More sophisticated concepts appearing in children’s books suggest to her that “people are giving children the respect that they deserve.... People have been underestimating children for a long time,” she said.
And yet it’s a fine line between being punchy and sophisticated and going over children’s heads, Kaiser believes. Finding books that communicate directly to children while also resonating on this higher level of sophistication “is our number one priority,” Bennett added.
Books to Grow On
Phaidon’s spring children’s list features seven titles, directed at various age ranges up to age eight. Roughly half of the titles were initially conceived of in-house – with the team then seeking outside talent – and the rest of the projects arrived via outside sources. Kaiser and Bennett also intentionally sought out authors and artists who had not before created children’s books, which led to “delightfully unexpected results,” Bennett said. Kaiser also noted that Phaidon publishes adult titles under broad categorizations, which she and Bennett have been cognizant of when coming up with children’s book concepts. As Phaidon is a well-established publisher of cookbooks for adults, it was only natural that the reconceived children’s department would venture into foodie territory as well.
“We wanted to create a book about food but in a non-didactic way,” said Kaiser. The idea led them to food critic Joshua David Stein, who collaborated with illustrator Julia Rothman on Can I Eat That? The nonfiction title matter-of-factly explores different types of foods that people can and do eat across different cultures, as well as those that people do not (like a tornado: “No, you can’t eat a tornado! It’s made out of wind”). In fact, food seems to play a big thematic role in Phaidon’s first season of children’s titles, Kaiser observed with a laugh. Harold’s Hungry Eyes by Kevin Waldron features a Boston terrier, Harold, that sees food everywhere he turns (such as a water tower that strongly resembles a muffin). Kaiser and Bennett first discovered Harold (which Waldron describes as “my own imaginary dog”) in a five-second animated GIF. While Waldron had written and illustrated children’s books before, he embraced an entirely new collage and line-art style in the cityscape for Harold’s Hungry Eyes.
In that way, while the story of a hungry dog is “familiar enough,” said Kaiser, the art technique offers something “fresh,” even for the illustrator himself. Keeping with their interest in experimenting with new design formats is Animals Are Delicious, a set of three fold-out books about food chains in different habitats. Food chains are already of interest to kids, Kaiser believes; when children play with stuffed animals or other toys, the question of which animal might gobble up another often arises. However, Kaiser and Bennett wanted to avoid the more unpleasant aspects of animals eating animals. The way around that was to “make the images as close to toys as we could.” They worked with the husband-and-wife design team Dave Ladd and Stephanie Anderson, who crafted animal models that they then positioned in photographs of wildlife scene sets; the effect is almost like looking into museum display cases featuring animal replicas.
Also publishing this spring is an oversize board book from French graphic designer Jean Jullien (known for his iconic “Peace for Paris” illustration) called This Is Not a Book. which includes a spread that transforms the “book” into a laptop notebook and a gatefold that opens to create a house. Phaidon is also releasing the first in a series of fine-art board books, Blue & Other Colors with Henri Matisse, and a boxed collection of four new books from Taro Gomi, Growing Together. And rounding out the list is a visual reference guide to nautical flags, Morse code, semaphore signaling, and the phonetic alphabet, called Alpha, Bravo, Charlie: The Complete Book of Nautical Codes.
Kaiser also gave a little taste of upcoming fall offerings. Still in development is a novelty cookbook, which takes readers step-by-step through a recipe for pancakes. Through a meta-twist, by the end readers have cardboard pancakes that they can flip themselves (though the recipe can also be replicated with real ingredients in the kitchen). A second in the series, which offers a recipe for pizza, is also in the works.
While the list crosses age ranges, genres, topics, and formats, Kaiser and Bennett agree that there is a gratifying sense of cohesion that unites the titles – and it’s not just the food theme. Kaiser believes that the titles share two main qualities: “Each book is inspired by the interests and behaviors of real children and designed to engage them by challenging their notions,” she said. Each of the books also “challenge the conventions of traditional book-making with unusual and innovative approaches to familiar themes, to art and design, to packaging and printing.”
What’s clear from Kaiser and Bennett’s passion is that every project matters, from conception to positioning in retail outlets. “We are putting a ton of energy behind each book we are publishing,” said Kaiser. Energy fueled, in part, by homemade chocolate graham crackers.