Un-Monday: Ursula Nordstrom on risk

With National Picture Book Writing Week well underway, I’ve been thinking  about the risky enterprise of writing a children’s book. Oh sure, the undertaking of the project ITSELF is an exercise in bravery–especially a picture book with all of its unspoken rules about compelling page-turns and the nuances of telling stories between art and text. But the personal risks are just as daunting:  Do I know the market well enough? Has this been done before? What if it’s terrible? And what of your dear reader, you wonder?  What if the book I write doesn’t match expectations?  Is this appropriate material for X age? Is this book offensive to some people or groups, and if so, am I pushing boundaries or just missing the mark? From concept to creation, there are countless reasons to quit while you’re ahead.

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Un-Monday: Ursula Nordstrom on how to create a picture book dummy

image credit: Dasha Tolstikova

Ursula Nordstrom/image credit: Dasha Tolstikova

This week’s Un-Monday post is inspired by my good friend Paula Yoo, an incredibly talented screenwriter and *picturebook author extraordinaire. Over on her website, she’s gearing up to host her seventh annual picturebook writing smackdown: NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week). From May 1-May 7 of this year, mortals all over the world will be transformed in to pen-wielding heroes, cranking out seven picture books in just seven days! Sure, it’s completely insane, but that’s what makes it so productive and popular. Under that kind of time constraint, you can’t over-think your work, you just have to get it down on the page. Intrigued? Terrified? Well, you’re on your way. Those are excellent reasons to dive head-first into a week-long writing intensive.

I’ll be guest blogging at and offering up advice and tips on how to start and finish those projects next week. In the meantime, if you’re braving a picturebook for the first time, I wanted to share Ursula Nordstom’s notes to John Steptoe, on the importance of emotion in the early stages of writing in this format, and her advice to him on how to create a picture book dummy.


From: DEAR GENIUS, edited by Leonard Marcus


From: DEAR GENIUS, edited by Leonard Marcus

Whether you’re an author or an illustrator, putting your work in the 32-page format as you develop it can be an invaluable tool for crafting compelling page turns and leaving room in the text for the art to tell story, too. One simple example of this is color. Rather than wasting valuable words on visual details (the best picture books are spare with modest word counts) let the illustrations carry some of that storytelling.

For further reading in advance of NaPiBoWriWee, check out Uri Shulevitz’s classic work on  picture book making:

and Molly Bang’s fabulously revealing summary of how shapes, position and color inform meaning in picturebooks.

*Note: I spell “picturebook” as one word. I share the philosophy that these books are an art form unto themselves and deserve to be recognized as such.