Esther K. Smith, who, with Dikko Faust, runs the great independent letterpress printer and publisher Purgatory Pie Press, has a new book in the book-birth canal. Making Books With Kids is a perfect sequel to How to Make Books and Magic Books and Paper Toys. Though she has been called the Betty Crocker of book-making, I just call her Esther. And I asked her to talk a little about her very large passion.
I love that you’ve focused on books for kids; it’s never too early to kindle an interest in paper and binding. What is your method of instilling in them a love of books?
I think loving books does not have to be instilled. Kids’ books sell themselves to children with beautiful, fun illustrations and design. I think of the limited-edition visual books we make at Purgatory Pie Press as children’s books for adults.
People tell me about reading to tiny pre-verbal crawlers who want to just snuggle in and turn the pages—a librarian colleague said four or five little nieces and nephews all ended up on her lap to read a story. Casual everyday exposure to books—making them part of bedtime, etc., for very young children, seems like the way into lifetime interest in books and reading.
And, from when toddlers first pick up pencils and begin drawing on the walls and everything else, little kids can start making books with the adults in their lives. You can make a book from any piece of paper—either before or after they draw on it.
When my older child was tiny, I met some artists who showed us a project that included children’s art. They were most excited by a very young child’s pre-objective markings; they said it was like Cy Twombly. That made me appreciate both my child’s first drawings and Cy Twombly’s drawings/paintings.
It is also fun to make simple books and write down the stories kids tell—or make up stories with them. We did this with our younger daughter, who was afraid of Monster Dogs in the Closet at Night. She had a pair of Keds Cowgirl Boots, and just stamping those boots turned the monsters into friendly puppies. We made the story into a book together, which helped calm her fears. (When I was a kid, I was afraid of thunder, and my parents gave me the chicken heart to eat when we had chicken—that’s how I got so brave.)
Our older child would draw pictures in the books we made for the younger child—and books and pop-up cards to send to family and friends. Making books and things made her an important contributor to the family (and to Purgatory Pie Press!). She also did illustrations for clients at our press. She drew a version of a paper company logo that caused some trouble—since logos are sacred—but that’s another story.
I have to ask, isn’t it a bit anachronistic? I mean, kids, books, paper? In the digital age?
Books are thriving in the digital age. Paper is far less ephemeral than electronics. Think of how many computers you’ve gone through—and how many books you have that are older than your earliest computer.
I think books, like running water, are so normal in our lives that people forget how remarkable they are. Books are such brilliant, portable multi-dimensional devices (4-D, including time—but what’s the dimension for the intimacy of curling up with a book?).
You can read a book in the bath, drop it in, and with some effort (interleaving with clean paper, resting under weight, etc.) you can continue reading your book.
One nice thing about books in the digital age is that you can publish your own books via scanning and printing.
Plus, my how-to books work well on iPads. Me, though, I still read paper books—even if I spend most of my time on my laptop.
Computers are a huge help for me when I am writing my books—and designing my how-to books— but we still hand-set the wood and metal display type—and then insert that type, scanning or shooting. Digital can include both worlds. We just need to think of computers as tools—not the boss of us.
But also, re: children (and other living things)—texture is important. And kids need to draw their own pictures, instead of feeling sad that their art does not look like video games—or Disney cartoons.
Stickers were very popular when my kids were little. I bought 1, 2, and 3¢ postage stamps for them to use instead. And I was interested to see that Thomas Heatherwick had also used stamps as image when I did a workshop based on his exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt.
Your hands-on methods have made you, in my mind, the Martha Stewart of design and typography. What do you think about that?
When How to Make Books released, Simon Doonan (creative director of Barneys New York) said, “Esther K. Smith is the Betty Crocker of bookmaking—and it’s a calorie-free hobby! Yay!” And now Martha Stewart, hmm. She did popularize crafts and cooking (and gardening and cleaning and organizing, though those are less my personal passions).
Well, How to Make Books does sell very well—my editor told me it was a Category Killer—or is that Kategory Killer? And since it has been out for years now, people come up to me at book fairs and tell me that they started making books from reading my book—and they are making some very nice books.
Since Purgatory Pie Press uses real typography—real metal, real wood—as a designer, I always start with type.
Type and bookbinding and design were the territory of a small group of experts and bibliophiles. I have been bringing books to The People. Now people who started making books from my first book have gone on to grad school book arts programs—really delving into high craft, becoming professionals—even teaching and running book arts centers. Other people publish chapbooks—and some just have fun, which is also valuable.
Making Books With Kids is bringing book arts to the younger people—and to parents, teachers, librarians and other people who work with children. I kept trying to say something like, The Family That Prays Together Stays Together, only with books … hanging around and making stuff with kids is pleasant. And then kids gain confidence from their competence. They learn to organize complicated projects—and spatial reasoning, practical math, paper engineering—as well as reading and writing and art.
I know one of your next projects on type is going to be a beauty. What else is next?
I am working on my next book with Rizzoli—not a how-to book—of very beautiful historic typography—Wm. H. Page & Co.’s Chromatic Wood Type from 1874. I am also doing preliminary work on a followup to my first book How to Make Books—working title: The How to Make Books Book—Book Two. Plus some book kits. And at Purgatory Pie Press, Dikko Faust has been relief-printing hardware, making moire patterns.
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