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.
But take heart, you’re not the only creator taking risks in the publishing process. Plenty of art directors, designers, and editors are toiling away behind the scenes, taking risks of their own that sometimes don’t pan out. And apparently, when Margaret Wise Brown, and illustrator by Garth Williams published The Little Fur Family with Ursula Nordstrom and Harper Brothers in 1946, one of those great creative leaps just plain flopped when they decided to give the book an actual fur cover.
In retrospect it seems like a slam dunk. A furry book about a fur-covered family? I mean come on! Who could resist? How many of us are still clamoring for one of those beastly Hogwarts tomes with teeth? Ursula was ahead of her time I tell you. Sadly, books with fur as it turns out, are just as problematic as books that bite. Because as much as kids may have loved them, moths loved them more and destroyed many of the first editions at the Harper warehouse.
UN’s note to Garth Williams recalls the incident with light humor and little comment, and in her indefatigable manner, suggesting that the next great idea may be hiding in the correspondence of one of her genius authors or illustrators:
Because at the end of the day, books and their inspirations come from risky and unlikely places–especially in children’s lit where Wild Things roam and the act of reading itself invites the young to think for themselves–and boy is that dangerous! So maybe taking a risk in your manuscript is okay, but why split hairs…?
For more tales of children’s lit derring-do, check out Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta.