The story of powerHouse Arena, powerHouse Books, and its children’s imprint POW! unfolds beneath the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, in New York’s distinctive Dumbo area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that has transitioned through gentrification like so many others.
Today, Dumbo’s Brooklyn Bridge Park now hosts a spectacular view, promenades, playgrounds, and even a restored 1920’s-era carousel, bringing an element of whimsy to an area that was once a manufacturing district populated by warehouses. On an unseasonably warm late October afternoon, ambling toddlers and strollers are a common sight, while across the East River, the Manhattan skyline glitters in the autumn sun.
The powerHouse Arena on the corner of Water and Main Streets has become a Dumbo mainstay, as a thriving bookstore and community gathering space for readings, performances, and even weddings. PowerHouse Arena also partners with the New York Photography Festival, with rotating exhibits featured throughout the year. But regardless of the Arena’s many artistic enterprises, at its core is powerHouse Books.
The publishing house, which specializes in highly visual art, fashion, pop culture, and photography books, was established by Daniel Power in 1995; he was joined by Craig Cohen in 1996. In 2006, Power and Cohen moved the headquarters and operations for powerHouse to its current sprawling Dumbo showroom, creating a self-described “laboratory for creative thought.”
A Children’s Imprint Grows in Dumbo
As the Dumbo area began to change over the last decade, with an increasing number of young families filling newly built condos and converted warehouses, so came the demand for children’s books – a demand answered by POW! publisher Sharyn Rosart. Hailing from Toronto, Rosart moved to New York in the late 1980s, becoming one of the cofounders of Quirk Packaging. Her interest in children’s books developed early: “I had a real passion for [books that] integrate design, text, and story in a way that’s way more organic than in illustrated books for grownups,” she said. So in 2011, when Quirk was sold to PowerHouse, she eagerly stepped up to build a children’s imprint. The POW! team is modest, consisting of publisher Rosart, publicity and editorial associate Allyssa Kasoff, and art director Krzysztof Poluchowicz.
Rosart loves that “every morning, I get to walk through a bookstore,” noting that “sometimes it takes me half an hour to get to my desk.” Her desk is up a short flight of stairs, where powerHouse and POW! share an airy office space that hovers over the bookstore like the dress circle at a theatre. Rosart describes the inspiration that arises from “the constant stream of creative people” passing through the space every day – whether it’s visiting authors and illustrators, photographers whose work is on display, or book-browsers from around the globe who are drawn to the unique venue. Even the walls of the bathrooms at the Arena are open canvasses, welcoming the work of graphic artists. Rosart describes the bookstore as a sort of “lab,” where she can observe children as they peruse books and sometimes hear their “wails” echoing through the Arena if their parents drag them away before they can acquire a coveted title. POW! has its own display in the store and, while Rosart doesn’t choose the titles, it’s a revolving and thorough representation of the POW! line.
In the seedling stages, Rosart was particularly interested in publishing books for kids from birth to age five, a range that she felt was underserved in the market. While raising her own children, Rosart reflected on how important it was to her to not only raise readers but to teach them to love books as objects of beauty. “I wanted to be sure that their books were compelling physically so that they would fall in love with them.”
Of the types of books that POW! publishes, Rosart reports that “there’s quite a variety... but they are united by a certain sensibility.” POW! aims to “avoid overly earnest or saccharine” qualities, favoring playful and edgy content that is “visually vibrant, exciting, and frequently humorous.” As a publisher and a mother, Rosart has learned that kids are savvy enough to detect when they are being spoonfed a lesson, so she seeks out titles that “make learning more subtle.”
POW’s catalog of titles has followed suit. Many of the books for the 0-5 range are “cool, beautiful, and well-designed and draw from classic design principles.” For example, Rosart displayed Baby’s First Book Blocks, a set of four mini board-books by artist Dan Stiles. Each book contains high-contrast colors and patterns, and each builds in visual complexity. Rosart sought out Stiles for the project, after seeing his graphic work on the bold yet minimalistic cover for Patrick deWitt’s adult book, Sisters Brothers (Ecco). While developing the board books, Rosart and Stiles researched early childhood visual development. She was surprised to learn how early children develop color sense – by nine months. “Might as well start training their eyes early,” she said.
Sowing the Seeds
While Rosart believes in creating books with smart and sophisticated designs that mentally stimulate very early readers, POW’s line also aims to speak to a child’s basic, burgeoning awareness of his or her environment – and there’s plenty of room for pure silliness as well. Addressing what Rosart knows “engenders no end of anxiety for parents” is a boxed board book set about personal hygiene and toilet training called Who Did It? While there is a “heavy dose of gross-out humor” in the books, the animal characters aid in easing children and parents through what can be a particularly challenging stage of development.
As with powerHouse Arena itself (and many of the books featured in the store), POW’s line of books also carry a decidedly Brooklyn-based sensibility. Many artists Rosart works with are from the area, some of whom she encounters through the thriving creative network associated with the Arena. POW’s recent releases include several unconventional ABC books, including Steampunk City by Manuel Sumberac, which Rosart describes as “reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s books,” in that it “captures the idea of a book as a beautiful object.” And, in an ABC book that might appeal both to kids interested in gaming as well as parents aiming to “hold their own with nine-year-old boys,” is Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet by Chris Barton, illustrated by Joey Spiotto, with entries that feature an insider gamer’s vernacular. Coming in spring 2015 is Brooklyn ABC, an insider’s look at Brooklyn sights, landmarks, and characteristics typically left out of more touristy fare (for example, the G entry stands for “Gowanus Canal”). The book is an inside job – written by POW’s own Poluchowicz.
Other forthcoming titles for spring include Jacqueline Schmidt’s Patchwork Goes Under Cover, the second in the series starring Patchwork the bear that uses a “collage-like art style,” and Chris Gorman’s Indi Surfs, about a capable girl surfer that Rosart describes as “evocative yet fun.” POW! has been also been working with local educator-turned-phenomenon Carmelo Piazza, affectionately known as Carmelo the Science Fellow. In 2006, Piazza began a series of homegrown after-school science programs for kids, so adored by Brooklyn families that Carmelo now runs science camps throughout the year. He has also opened the Cobble Hill Preschool of Science. The first in what may become a series for POW!, Crazy for Science with Carmelo the Science Fellow, releases in February.
As Dumbo kids who may have reached for picture books a few years back come of age, POW! will be expanding to appeal to an older audience. Forthcoming seasons will introduce middle-grade fiction and graphic novels to the list, books that will remain “in alignment with the powerHouse sensibility of modern and subversive,” but likely with a sprinkling of humor as well – the kind that “is absurd but with a sweet lesson,” Rosart said. “Not too sweet,” she added.