Melissa & Doug, a nearly $1 billion toy brand cofounded by Melissa Bernstein and her husband Doug more than 30 years ago, is making its first major foray into children’s publishing. The company is launching an in-house-managed imprint that will release hands-on interactive formats for kids up to five years old. The books will join the 2,400 unique toys already in the Melissa & Doug catalogue.

“It’s our mission to provide a launch pad to ignite the imagination and a sense of wonder in all children, and ultimately help them discover who they are,” says Melissa Bernstein, co-founder and CEO. “There’s no better way to do that than through books. They’re the ultimate form of open-ended play.”

Melissa & Doug decided to oversee its publishing program internally rather than work with an outside publisher, in keeping with its custom. “We think we have a unique lens on what we do, and no one can execute our vision better,” Bernstein explains.

Sara Miller, former senior editor at Disney Publishing Worldwide, joined the company in May as editorial director for Melissa & Doug Books. She reports to Bernstein and helps write the books, as well as shepherding the entire program.

Melissa & Doug’s initial list, which has just shipped to stores, encompasses 32 titles, with another 60 to follow in 2020. The books, like the company’s toys, will be sold widely, not just in bookstores but in specialty book-and-toy shops, through online booksellers, and in mass market book departments as well. Melissa & Doug was built in the specialty market and has 17,000 independent-retailer customers.

“This launch brings us firmly into the book business,” says chief strategy officer Julie DeLoyd. “This is our first foray into products meant for book departments, but the books match so closely with our brand message, we think buyers will embrace them.” Noting that the company has done a few hybrid book-toy products in the past, such as cloth books and activity pads, and that its toys are sold in bookstores as sidelines, DeLoyd adds, “Book buyers are very familiar with the brand.”

Reflecting Melissa & Doug’s reputation for creating traditional toys made from materials such as wood, fabric, and cardboard, the books are intended to be playful and imaginative, get kids away from their screens, and foster communication between young children and their parents and caregivers.

“We want to say very strongly that we are convinced it’s better to interact with a tangible book than a book on the screen,” Bernstein says, explaining that each title has hands-on play value. “We will have interactive elements to bring the books to life, but they’re interactive in the sense of fun features that really engage the senses and bring that spark into the experience.”

The initial list includes three series from InnovativeKids (whose assets are now owned by Melissa & Doug), which are being released with reimagined content at lower prices. Bernstein reports that she long admired InnovativeKids’ products, and that some of Melissa & Doug’s most prolific designers came to the company from Innovative. A few of those designers were even involved in these series when they first launched, Bernstein adds.

Formats in the debut assortment include nine 20-page Poke-a-Dot interactive board books, which have patented buttons that can be popped; a Natural Play line, made from recycled and recyclable materials printed with soy-based inks, consisting of blocklike chunky board book towers, book bundles, and books packed in a carrying case with a puzzle or game; a Bath Play line that includes four themed bath books packaged with floating toys, as well as seven soft foam books with removable foam pieces that stick to the side of a bathtub; EZ Page Turners with sculpted pages that are easy for little readers to manipulate; Mask Books with built-in masks to encourage role-play; and Tether Books that come with cardboard figures attached with ribbons, which can be put into pockets on each page.

The program may eventually expand to include older age groups. It is also possible that the line will integrate some book-and-toy products at some point, although there are no plans to base any books on specific toys or toy brands.

Melissa & Doug is committed to book publishing for the long term. “We want books to be one of our biggest categories, if not the biggest,” Bernstein says.