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The Creators of Project Play

Marlene F. Byrne author
Jesse Graber illustrator

Marlene grew up in a small town where the neighborhood kids spent their time imagining games, negotiating between teams, and creating new ways to play. When she became a mother, she wanted her children to play outside and use their imagination instead of electronics to have fun. 

Marlene began working on books to help families understand the importance of unstructured playtime and feel good, not guilty, about their kids just playing in the backyard. She debuted the first three books in the Project Play series—Treasure HuntFollow the Leader, and Just a Baseball Game in hardcover for a younger audience.  Her paperback chapter books came shortly after and are geared for slightly older kids with Kick the Can, Ghost in the Graveyard, and Charades.

Since its debut, the project has received nationwide media attention and a Mother's Choice Award. 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 spend their free time.

Marlene lives in Chicago with her husband Brian, their children, Samuel, Matthew, and Maggie, and their dog, Riley. Learn more about Marlene Byrne at

Illustrator: JESSE GRABER

Jesse 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.”

Jesse brings the characters of Project Play to life with his colorful illustrative style.

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.

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