This story originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Washington magazine.
Books are great for children's minds. But for their bodies, toxins lurk on every page.
Alarmed by the number of toxins found in the binding, ink, and laminates of children's books, green parents Allison Reeve Manley, BFA93, and her husband, Rob Coleman, started Squishy Press, a publishing company that uses only natural and safe products in making its books.
The couple first became aware of the problem when their young son, Reeve, was chewing books apart. The couple found it easy to find sustainable and organic options for things like clothing, diapers, mattresses, and even carpeting, but not books. Yet these were the objects Reeve couldn't keep out of his mouth.
Manley and Coleman's passion for environmentalism, coupled with their knowledge of printing techniques from running their own design firm, led them to produce their own healthy books.
"We thought that since we're designers, and we knew how to do things more sustainably, we'd come up with our own line," Manley says. "The other reason we wanted to do this was that, frankly, some children's books are very cute, but some of them are incredibly dated with bad photography that looks terrible. So we decided to come up with our own concept to make books hipper, cooler, quirky, and modern."
The two own Rogue Element, Inc., a design firm that specializes in work for higher education and sustainability.
"I'm still using a lot of the knowledge I learned at Washington University to be a good designer and project manager," Manley says. She credits the design principles she learned from Sarah Birdsall, associate professor of art at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, with her knowledge of design's building blocks.
Squishy Press has printed two books so far: one called Opposites, which has pictures of children opposite each other as antonyms (such as happy/sad) with a brightly colored background. The key word is repeated in English, Spanish, and French. The other book, Silly Faces, has no words but contains photos of children making funny expressions.
Manley is hoping to make six books in all. The other four books will be called Animals, 123's, ABC's, and Colors.
Receiving positive feedback from consumers, Squishy Press has sold 4,000 books in its yearlong life.
"The people who don't care about the green stuff love that the pictures are cute and the photos are modern," Manley says. "The people who appreciate the green stuff have been overwhelmingly positive. They appreciate the transparency that we're able to offer."
Squishy Press hired a third party to test the books' toxin levels. They are significantly lower than the national requirement, and are about as toxin-free as a book can get. More specific details can be viewed on the website, www.squishypress.com. The books are made from recycled paper and are produced at wind-powered facilities. All of the materials were made in the United States.
Manley and Coleman plan to expand Squishy Press' merchandise to include stacking blocks, puzzles, and memory games.
"We're just trying to provide another option for parents who are worried about surrounding their children with toxins in their home," Manley says.
So where did the name Squishy Press originate? It does not actually describe the books, which are as sturdy as normal books.
"When we were pregnant, and we knew what our son's name was going to be, we weren't quite ready to share it with the world. So we referred to the baby as Mr. Squishy because my belly was squishy at the time," Manley says.
When she and her husband found out that their photographer, Steven Gross, has a brother by the same nickname, they couldn't resist naming their company Squishy Press.
The expansion of Squishy Press isn't the only thing keeping Manley and Coleman busy. Their son, Reeve, is now 2 1/2 years old, and the couple is expecting another child in August.
Michelle Merlin, Arts & Sciences Class of '12, is a summer writing intern in University Marketing & Design.