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2016 Preview Interview: Phaidon

Phaidon Books

I’ve been following Phaidon’s children’s books for a few years now – mainly due to their Tomi Ungerer reissues and inventive Herve Tullet board books. This spring, Phaidon is expanding their children’s list. I talked to Cecily Kaiser (formerly of Scholastic and Abrams) about this fresh batch of books.

Travis Jonker: Greetings from Michigan! How are things in New York?

Cecily Kaiser: Hey there! New York is sunny, colorful, and smells like chocolate. (Or maybe that’s just my office…)

TJ: I’m getting a popcorn scent here. New York wins, but by a slim margin.

So I understand Phaidon is expanding their children’s list. I support this decision. Who decided this and why now? I want to give them a pat on the back.

CK: Phaidon is under new ownership and new management, (as of a couple years ago), both of which are totally enthused about children’s books! The owners raised four children of their own, and treasure their collection of children’s books as much as they do their fine art… it’s lucky to be working for people who recognize the formative importance of books from an early age. It’s also the only solid publishing business to be in these days, and these folks are pretty shrewd business people. It’s a win-win!

TJ: If Phaidon’s children’s books had a motto, what would it be?

CK: Beauty and brains! Or maybe: Books that are all the rage for every age and stage. (I’ve just made these up on the spot, can you tell?)

TJ: These are solid attempts. 

CK: The idea here is that our books are truly Phaidon-esque via their curated art and design, best-in-class production and packaging, and entirely unique content… but also custom-made to meet the developmental needs and high interests of specific age groups. Not your mother’s children’s books! (Horrible.)

TJ: Ha! That last one feels forced, but I appreciate the effort.

What’s been the most (pick one) exciting/strange/difficult part of offering more children’s books?

CK: Expanding our program has required many folks here to take on extra work – our production team has absorbed the new list, our marketing and publicity teams have built out an entirely new network, our sales team is lugging around twice as many samples and wrapping their heads around a whole new perspective – and yet, everyone is completely exhilarated by the books, virtually giddy! Leave it to children’s books to get grown-ups excited about working harder.

TJ: Yeah, kids and kids books both have a way of getting grown-ups to hustle.

Do you have any books that you think fill specific gaps librarians might have in their collections?

CK: Oh, yes! Half the fun of my job is to identify themes, angles, perspectives that have shockingly never been published, and then do them justice! There has never been a comprehensive children’s book published on nautical codes (flags, semaphore, morse code, phonetic alphabet) UNTIL NOW: Alpha Bravo Charlie by Sara Gillingham (out May 23, 2016).

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There has never been a beautiful stand-alone book on food chains for very young children UNTIL NOW: Animals Are Delicious by Sarah Hutt (out June 13, 2016).

There has never been a series of first concept books that pair each concept with a different fine artist UNTIL NOW: Blue & Other Colors with Henri Matisse (out April 18, 2016).

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There has never been a whimsical read-aloud picture book about the foods we eat and don’t eat UNTIL NOW: Can I Eat That? by Joshua David Stein (out March 28, 2016).

Exciting, right???

TJ: That is indeed a lot of UNTIL NOWS. So what’s the most unique book you have coming out?

CK: Which of your children do you love the most? Tough question, man! They’re all unique, and I’m not just saying that… but the book that has been the toughest to explain and the easiest to sell is Jean Jullien’s This Is Not A Book (out March 21, 2016). Lucky for us, once you see it, it needs no explanation.

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(I think Jean himself explained it best: “This Is Not A Book is a toy with many pages! Playfulness is something that I hold very dear as it encourages us to experiment and challenge our surroundings. This Is Not A Book is an invitation to do just that!”)

TJ: You have to give one of these books “The Crowd-Pleaser Award” – which book gets it?

CK: It depends on the crowd! A crowd of two year-olds will definitely fight over Animals Are Delicious – each food chain stretches out to over six feet long! A crowd of five year-olds will eat up Harold’s Hungry Eyes (out May 16, 2016) – with food collage and the cutest pup ever!

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Your information-loving 6-8 year olds will hog Alpha Bravo Charlie until they’ve memorized the content and successfully communicated in code! And all those Food Channel-crazy kids will be avid fans of Can I Eat That?.

TJ: We talked about Jean Jullien, but you have a book from another familiar name coming: Taro Gomi. What will that be like?

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CK: We are so psyched to be publishing the beloved Taro Gomi! And not only with a single title, but four original picture books in one set (out April 11, 2016)!

These books are very him – relatable subject matter portrayed honestly and with a bit of unexpected quirk. Books about sharing and imagining and family can be so saccharine and spoon-fed, but these are just the opposite: loving and gritty, familiar and fresh. He’s a master!

TJ: Looks like you have a pretty good amount of nonfiction.

Over half of our list is nonfiction, though you’d never know it. It’s illustrated! It’s hardcover! It’s stand-alone! Our nonfiction titles are like the children’s book equivalent of those historical tales that read like novels. (Devil In The White City comes to mind…) The facts are disguised in page-turning read-aloud text. It’s an experiment! I hope it works.

TJ: The artwork in Animals Are Delicious stands out to me – it’s like a diorama or something. How did that book come about?

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Yeah, totally a diorama! These illustrators are phenomenal. We started this project by considering that animal food chains for 2-4 year-old are all about imaginary play and reenactment. And so we decided to illustrate it to look like toy figurines! We knew that the illustrations needed to leave a lot to the imagination (including the pursuit and the gore), so toy-like characters in scenes felt right. The artists are a husband-wife team who had never done a children’s book before, but they have a two year-old daughter and got the concept right away! They built all the animals and scenes from scratch, and then photographed them. It was a highly involved process that yielded a deceptively simple product. We love it!

TJ: I’m sensing a food theme – is that fair to say?

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I’m actually eating pretzels as we speak; the chocolate is long gone. My salad at lunch was really delicious, but not that filling…

TJ: …

Oh! You meant a food theme throughout the list. Yes! We have the extreme pleasure of working alongside our cookery colleagues, who publish the most remarkable food books in the industry. Inspired by this defining Phaidon category, we felt it only appropriate to carry this category over to our children’s list. After all, kids eat too! Food is near the top of the list of universally relatable subjects for children… and jumping off of this shared experience allows for some truly unique subject matter. More to come!

TJ: So true on the food.

Anything we missed?

First, links! I’d like to personally invite your readers to join the Phaidon community and stay up to date on new books, giveaways, and behind-the-scenes shenanigans.
Follow/Like/Visit us at:
Twitter: @phaidon
Facebook: phaidoncom
Instagram: @phaidonsnaps
Our spring 2016 catalog: http://www.phaidon.com/resource/ws16-childrenscatalog-us2.pdf

For the spring catalog, a HAROLD’S HUNGRY EYES Desktop Screensaver and a CAN I EAT THAT? Activity Pack — along with more info about all the titles, click here.

Next, I will say that these are the most distinguished books I have ever published. I have always worked on books for young children, but never have I been at a house that prioritized the elegance of the physical object in quite this way. Phaidon has empowered us to create non-mainstream books for the mainstream. And I couldn’t be prouder of that.

Lastly, a shout-out to the beloved library teacher at Central School (K-5) in Glen Rock, NJ – my mother, Marcia Kaiser! I’ve heard time and again that SLJ is her “bible”, so I’m quite sure she’ll read this and smile.

TJ: Thank you for taking my questions, Cecily.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. I MUST read This Is Not A Book.