The Heart of Play

Marlene Byrne
Project Play Founder and Author

marleneGrowing up in a small town, she lived in an environment where imagining games, negotiating between teams and creating new ways to play were the norm.

Marlene began brainstorming ways to help families understand the importance of unstructured playtime and feel good, not guilty, about their kids just playing in the backyard. In 2008, Marlene founded Project Play and debuted the first three books in the series—Treasure Hunt, Follow the Leader, and Just a Baseball Game. Her first chapter books are available for slightly older kids with Kick the Can, Ghost in the Graveyard and Charades.

In a letter published on, Marlene wrote, “Our kids need time to round up their peers, play “kick the can,” even scrape their knees. Our job as parents is to make backyard playtime a priority—and be there to supply the band aid afterwards.”

Since its debut, the project has received nationwide media attention. BusinessWeek, Chicago Parent, South Florida Parenting Magazine, Time Out Chicago, and the Midwest Book Review have all praised Project Play, depicting the stories as great tools for changing the way children today are spending their free time.

Marlene lives in Chicago with her husband Brian, their two children, Matthew and Maggie, and their dog, Murphy.


Jesse Graber
Project Play Illustrator

JesseJesse grew up in the tall grass prairies and wheat fields of Kansas, where he jokes, “you learn at a young age to entertain yourself, because the wheat fields sure aren’t going to.”

He received a Bachelor’s of Art from Bethel College in North Newton, KS and six years later, he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Illustration from the American Academy of Art in Chicago.

It was during his time at the American Academy of Art that Jesse met Marlene and they began to bring the characters of Project Play to life. Ever since, he has been eagerly illustrating the Project Play books and freelancing for Celtic and various children’s magazines.

At a Project Play release party in Kansas, Jesse told a Newton reporter from The Kansan, “When I read the stories, I was ecstatic about the concept. There’s something about putting games into a frame or getting the characters to come alive in a book that makes it real. I am terribly happy about bringing them to life.” Jesse lives with his wife, Ruth, in North Newton, KS.