Read Local: McSweeney's Makes Children's Books Magical Again

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Jacque Kramer, Southern Exposure
Author Brian McMullen and artist Jason Jägel sign their new book.

New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a new series focusing on books produced in the Bay Area.

The book release party for Hang Glider & Mud Mask at Southern Exposure should have been a bust. Scheduled for 6 p.m. at the end of a long work week, the elements were colluding: Steady rain poured down from above, parking involved several passes around the venue, and the nearest BART station was 11 blocks away. A poor turnout was all but guaranteed, and yet, they came. They all came, and they were happy they did.

This is McSweeney's we're talking about. They are not known to disappoint.

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The dos-á-dos book plays with format in a way no other children's book publisher is doing right now.
My plus one for the evening, food critic Jesse Hirsch, took in the scene with approval. Attendees seemed slightly better dressed than one is accustomed to in San Francisco, and there were ample cucumbers, a tie-in to the book, to prop on the rim of his plastic cup full of white wine. We moved about the gallery examining paintings by the book's artist, Jason Jägel, tacked to the wall for just one night. Ostensibly, Hirsch liked the matte colored prints full of geometric shapes and subjects seemingly primed for launch, but he was not without reservations. "This all seems a bit heady for children," he commented, doubting it would have appealed to his younger self.

It has been some time since were were children, and neither of us currently has the human kind. I scanned the room in search of consultants, but they were hard to catch. Still clad in rain boots and slickers, tiny bodies ran around the open floor plan in swarms, flashes of red and pink and blue and green moving en masse.

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Samantha (left), age 5 3/4, and Alex (right), age 9.
 Enter Alex and Samantha. With a determined look, the girls walked straight across the room to the first work, standing no more than two feet away, and 10 seconds later, as if on cue, they side-stepped right. As it happens, Alex, age 9, and Samantha, 5 ¾, are regulars on the book party circuit.

"But this is my first children's book party," Alex clarified. She had read the book, and found it to be clever. With a furrowed brow and expressive gestures, she explained that the book opened from two sides and the stories merged in the middle, something she had never seen before.

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"I didn't read it," Samantha admitted, but she had studied the pages at home. Waving an imperious hand in the air, she added, "This is real art." After checking my notes to make sure I had included the ¾ to her age, the tiny sophisticate went on to name the mud mask as her favorite part.

I sought out other families, trailing a father across the room as a child pulled on each arm, determined to make their way toward the table covered in book-themed edible goods. He appreciated that the story was slightly different than others he read at bedtime, confessing an acute aversion to farm-centric titles. Sure, the book required a bit more explanation than usual, but the parents are more engaged than usual. This exchange sets the stage for meaningful conversation that lasts long after the 32 pages of exceptional prints conclude. Hang Glider & Mud Mask accomplishes the loftiest goal a picture book with few words can: It greatly enriches the experience of gathering together as a family.

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Brian McMullen reads alongside a member of the Magik*Magik Orchestra.
The artist was commissioned by editor Brian McMullen, who is also the author of the book, as well as the namesake of the children's imprint. "We accept submissions, but our list is small. I see an artist like Jägel and I think, he has a children's book in him." McMullen was interrupted before he could elaborate. Members of the Magik*Magik Orchestra awaited, and the author made his apologies before taking his place next to a bass clarinet, the artist already standing beside the violinist. The reading commenced, and the musicians played a song commissioned for the occasion. If I closed my eyes, I could have been at any performance-driven literary event in the city, but I focused instead on the children, searching for a face to read. They were standing, sitting, or held, finally still, mesmerized, as were their parents. McMullens has produced a book that captivates parent and child alike.
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The demiurgic author experimented with format for the book, and prototypes were on display. McMullen had learned about the dos-á-dos format while studying bookbinding under Jim Canary in college. "It's a classic book form that's been around for centuries -- there was even a McSweeney's Quarterly that used this format as a way of presenting two separate projects back-to-back in one volume -- but I hadn't seen a dos-á-dos binding used as an integral part of the storytelling."

McMullen, himself a father of two, explained the genesis of the imprint in an e-mail as he would any project at McSweeney's. "Somebody on our dozen-person crew follows a personal interest or excitement, and the act of following that interest leads to a concrete publishing project." He named additional examples, equally innovative in format and content, including the quarterly food magazine, Lucky Peach, and the forthcoming Song Reader by Beck, which consists entirely of sheet music. They are not necessarily "programmatic about this," he furthered. "Whatever works works."

In this case, Hang Glider & Mud Mask most definitely works.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on FacebookFollow Alexis Coe on twitter @Alexis_Coe

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