How One Of Westchester's Own Climbed To The Top Of Simon & Schuster's Children's Division

For Katonah resident Dan Potash, the route to designing children’s books has been a long and winding road.




 

It’s rush hour in Katonah when Dan Potash ducks into Little Joe’s Books, the local café and bookstore, for his morning cup of coffee and a quick chat with the store’s owner about what’s new in children’s literature. As the vice president and creative director of the Children’s Book Division at Simon & Schuster—one of the “big four” publishing companies that dominate the US market—Potash is undoubtedly qualified to dole out advice. As creative director, he oversees the design process for the 750 children’s books published by Simon & Schuster yearly; yet, as he takes the time to provide his favorite local children’s bookstore with advice, it is apparent that Potash is both unexpectedly humble and refreshingly excited about the business of children’s books.

“When I first met Dan, I had no idea that he was this amazing person in children’s literature,” admits Little Joe’s owner Jennifer Cook. “He was just a witty and charming customer. Then he started to come in very casually to give us guidance about what’s coming out, what’s hot, and what’s special in children’s literature. He has done a picture-book workshop at the store. He brings his children to our events. He is just an amazing gift to us.”

At 52, Potash—who lives in Katonah with his wife, Celeste, and their two children, Ruby, 12, and Nathan, 11—admits that he didn’t realize his calling until later in life. “I love my work,” he says. “I feel incredibly lucky to be doing what I do, but my road to publishing was circuitous.” He studied art at Skidmore College, and then went on to earn his masters in Fine Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago, eventually starting his career as a professional artist selling his work here and there at galleries while supplementing his income as a waiter, and then as an art teacher.

While working as an art teacher at The Birch Wathen Lenox School, a private school in Manhattan, he found himself smitten by a tool he once considered an old nemesis: the computer. “This was during the early 1990s, and I had never used a computer in my life,” he says. “I remember sitting in the school computer lab, watching one of my colleagues who was using a Macintosh Classic—it had only a black-and-white screen—and as I watched her scroll over text, making it smaller, then larger, and then changing the font, I was blown away! It’s hilarious thinking back on this now. But for me, it was like watching a magician!”

He was hooked. “I took a QuarkXPress 101 class so I could learn enough to start freelancing,” Potash says. As soon as he felt he was good enough, he tried his hand as a freelance graphic designer, working for a catalogue-design company. He eventually landed a freelance job with an educational publisher called Curriculum Concepts International. “I realized then that it was possible to bring what I knew about painting to what I was doing on the computer,” he recalls. Then, in 1996, Potash and one of his co-workers made a plan to leave Curriculum Concepts to start their own graphic-design company, Spinning Egg Design Group.

That co-worker would eventually become his wife, Celeste. “For a few years, business was really cranking for us. Then 9/11 hit, and business started to dry up just about the time we had our first child. We were just holding on,” Potash recalls.

In need of a big win, Potash went to pitch Simon & Schuster, hoping he could pick up a huge new client for his company. Instead, they offered him the job of art director for the imprint Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. “I was art director for that imprint for three and a half years,” Potash says. “Then, when my boss decided to leave, I got a call from her boss, who asked me if I would be interested in taking over the department, and I was flabbergasted because I was the newest guy there!” He suspects that “the experience of running my own business ended up being a real asset. I was interested in the business side of things. My boss said he liked that about me; I didn’t have a classic artist’s brain.”

During the past 12 years at Simon & Schuster, Potash has put his touch on thousands of the firm’s most popular children’s books. His workday is filled with cover-design meetings, update meetings, and acquisition meetings. “Yes, the job involves a lot of management, but it turns out I actually love that piece of it,” Potash says. But, he’s quick to point out, “It’s a tradeoff; I don’t get a whole lot of time to design. I knew that would be the case going into this.”

Still, when he does get to design, Potash says there are some truly magical moments. Take, for instance, the recent memoir written by Leon Leyson, who was one of the youngest of the 1,100 Jews saved by Oskar Schindler, an event immortalized in Schindler’s List. “When I heard about it, I told the editor, ‘I absolutely have to work on this!’ It was such a challenge from a design perspective. How do you create a jacket that shows both hope and despair, simultaneously?” In the end, he chose for the book’s cover a layered photograph of a boy sitting on a box; the image, which feels more like a watercolor painting than a photograph, somehow evokes a sense of foreboding and childhood innocence at the same time. This book, The Boy on the Wooden Box, was released last summer.

Potash explains that even with his plate full of both the magical and the mundane responsibilities that are required of a Simon & Schuster creative director, he makes the effort to remain present in the Katonah community. “I’m active when I can be—really, where I want to be. I was an assistant Little League coach for my son’s team. I’ve been involved with the Bedford Energy Advisory Committee, and I am very supportive of Jen Cook and her bookstore, because I feel very strongly about supporting local bookstores," he says. "I make the time for these things, because I don’t believe in working all hours, for me or my staff. I believe, if you are going to love what you do for a living, you have to love what you do and who you are outside of the job. That balance is something I’m always working on.”