Jordan Nielsen Interview

Jordan Nielsen

Associate Publisher & Editorial Director Pow! Kids Books

Tell us about your background and how you came to be the Associate Publisher and Editorial Director of POW Kids Books.

My under graduate degree is actually in filmmaking! I loved the art of visual storytelling, but after graduating it took me about nine months of working in the industry to realize that I actually hated the hustle of trying to make it into a profession. So I shifted towards books, going back to graduate school at the University of Edinburgh for creative writing. In 2011 I was hired as the children’s book specialist, and eventually buyer, at the Powerhouse Arena, an independent bookstore in Dumbo, Brooklyn. I was really happy just working as a bookseller, I loved curating the inventory, running a middle grade book club, and hand-selling to parents and kids.
Powerhouse’s parent company, Powerhouse Books launched POW! Kids Books in 2013 under the leadership of Sharyn Rosart, who established it as a dynamic publisher of design-minded, innovative picture books and board books. When she moved on a few years later, our CEO Daniel Power already knew me pretty well, knew I had a writing background, and knew my tastes from what he’d seen in his store, so he offered me the opportunity to be the editor for the imprint. Over the years that expanded to where I am now. A lot of what I know about children’s books comes directly from the retail side, but that old filmmaking degree does help in making illustrated books!

POW! publishes books for children that are visually striking, imaginative, funny, modern, and have an offbeat or edgy sensibility. Could you share a few of your recent titles which really deliver on this mission?

There are a couple of recent titles that I think really represent Pow’s brand, one is Bodega Cat by Louie Chin. Louie is a tremendously talented illustrator who we’d worked with previously on Don’t Ask a Dinosaur. Bodega Cat exemplified Louie’s detailed, contemporary, urban-influenced style. His spreads are packed with so much realism, but framed in delight. I love that this book captures an iconic, yet often overlooked aspect of city life, and really highlights the joy to be found in our diversity.
Another is The Climbing Tree by John Stith and illustrated by Yulia Pieletskaya. While this story may have the feel of a classic fable (which is not something Pow goes for), what made this such a great book for us was its modern sensibilities. I loved that this is a book about vulnerability in boys, and love between brothers. In the last decade we’ve seen SO many picture books lifting up strong role models for girls, which is fantastic, but I was, and still am, eager for more books that speak to the complex emotional lives of boys. This book did that superbly. And then Yulia’s artwork elevated it to a really grand level. She captured that texture of timelessness, but infused it with so many wonderfully unexpected details that gave it vitality. They paired beautifully, it reminds me of a Miyazaki movie.

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How important is it for kids to explore subjects outside of their comfort zone?

I think outside the comfort zone is where kids live. Everything is new to them, there is so much analysis and decoding that they are having to do every day. Childhood is not comfortable. And that’s why I think it’s so important to have the upmost respect for kids as readers, and to present them with books that speak honestly about their world. Of course it’s up to the parents to decide what content they are comfortable sharing with their child, and what their child is or isn’t ready for yet, but kids always rise to the occasion.

Is humour a key ingredient in children's books? Which illustrator's artwork makes you laugh the most?

Humor, whimsy, or surprise. Not every book has to be funny, but I think every book has to make your brain tingle a little, so you need at least one of those three essential components. And that’s really the magic of the illustrator. You can take text that’s absolutely flat as a pancake, but if the art has that wink, it becomes something that grabs you. That’s why we all love Jon Klassen so much. My sense of humor runs pretty dry. I thought Esme Shapiro’s Ooko was hilarious, so surprising. And something very simple like Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani will get me. I’m a sucker for cute, disgruntled little faces.

What portfolio advice would you offer illustrators looking to appeal to POW Kids Books?

Having a distinctive visual style is so important to us. Being a tiny publisher, it just wouldn’t make sense for us to try to go for mass-market appeal, so to that end, an illustrator either is a perfect fit for us, or just isn’t at all. Put your weird foot forward, so long as that’s genuine for you. Alongside your portfolio and news posts on please use Instagram! It’s a great way to show more of your talent in a looser setting, and helps me to see what you’re currently up to. The @childrensillustrators feed is fantastic!

In what ways do you support and nurture emerging illustration talent?

The majority of the illustrators we work with are first-timers! Because we keep our list small, just three or four books per season, it gives me the ability to work very closely with the illustrators. I guess you could say I also wear the art director hat (did I mention it’s a small company?), as I’m selecting the artists, and giving them feedback throughout the art creation process. It’s really joyful both to give new illustrators this opportunity to lead and spread their wings, but also to offer guidance and impart what I know from experience.

To date, what has been the most successful title on your list?

Lucía the Luchadora. I feel so lucky to have had that book land in my inbox. What a little dynamo. This is the kind of book that you just hope SO much will be a hit, and then to see it take off is thrilling. The response from kids has been the best part. I’ve seen handmade Lucía costumes, Lucía birthday cakes, even a piñata! The first book did so well we made a sequel, Lucía the Luchadora and the Million Masks, which expanded Lucía’s story to include her little sister, another Luchadora in the making. And you didn’t hear it from me, but you might be seeing Lucía in a whole new format. Fingers crossed.

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What projects are you working on now?

We’re getting ready to launch or spring titles, My Best Friend, Sometimes, by Naomi Danis and and Cinta Arribas, the team behind our 2018 hell-raiser, I Hate Everyone, as well as Auntie Uncle: Drag Queen Hero, a book that’s so near and dear to my heart.
In production for fall we have a number of really fun, stylish board books, and a picture book called The Librarian’s Stories, which I’m really excited about. It’s written by Lucy Falcone, and illustrated by Anna Wilson, who is making her debut. It’s historical fiction, loosely based on the bombing of the National Library of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The story is of an irrepressible librarian who continues to read aloud in the ruins of the town square to bring hope to the people, told from the perspective of a little boy who listens. At its heart it’s a celebration of librarians and the value of their work. The artwork is absolutely breathtaking.

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Who or what have been some of the major influences in your career so far?

Like so many of my generation, my career was radically shaped by the Great Recession. After grad school, I moved to New York in the fall of 2008 intending to get a job (any job!) in publishing, only to wind up being unemployed for a year. What scant interviews I was able to get resulted in nothing. It was miserable!
The closest I was able to get to the book world was a part-time job as a bookseller at the now-closed Scholastic Store in Manhattan, on the ground floor of their headquarters. I was among the employees who would wear the Clifford the Big Red Dog mascot costume and dance around on Broadway to lure people into the store. I still have a dollar that a guy tipped me for taking a picture with his kids. It was torn and half and held together with tape. Watching nicely dressed young women walk past me to ride the elevator up to their publishing jobs was humbling.
The GOOD part of it was that we were allowed to borrow and read all the children’s books we wanted. I had read and been obsessed with Harry Potter of course, but that was all I knew of contemporary kids books. Once I started reading more I realized how much I loved the material, and that turned into a full-fledged passion. So to try to do something in the industry, I started a blog called, which I then ran for about four years where I would review middle grade and YA novels and conduct author interviews, and really built up a versed knowledge in new titles. It was that website that eventually led me to being hired at Powerhouse.
I say all of this to impart to your readers that just because your path is a little weird, or doesn’t look the way it’s “supposed to” look, doesn’t mean it isn’t leading somewhere! There are more doors in than you can see.

What was the standout children's book from your own childhood?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, definitely. I wanted to live inside that world so badly. It always disappointed me when the townsfolk leave in the end! What are you doing!? Pizza falls from the sky! It was absolutely the most tantalizing concept to me. I actually hated reading as a kid. I’m still a very slow reader to this day, but back then I thought that because reading was work for me that it meant I was “bad at it”. So stories like Cloudy that were extremely visual were my way in. It actually wasn’t until I read Harry Potter the summer before college that I really learned how to love to read, and then it all got easier. So I feel a lot of connection to the reluctant reader. It’s part of why I believe that there really is a perfect book that unlocks reading for every kid, and I want to help create that.

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