The (Lost) Spark of Back-and-Forth Collaboration? • by Natascha Biebow


Once acquired
by a publisher
, picture books are made by collaboration – a whole team
behind the scenes, including the illustrator, the author, the editor, designer
and production team works closely together to share their expertise and to build upon the creator's initial ideas. Once made, picture books look seamless: all those
collaborative discussions are evident in the polished book. Now, there will be
people championing it in the publisher’s marketing, sales, rights and publicity


Many hands collaborate to make a picture book that shines

a collaboration is established in a particularly inspired author illustrator
pairing that will go on to endure and delight countless young readers.


But what
of the collaboration between the creative and the first point of contact –
usually the editor at the publishing house? The kind that takes time and a
special kind of eye to see the seed of something special and commercial and
then time and effort to let it ‘cook’ till it shines. Is it a lost art?


In the
US, recently several junior editors quit their roles citing being overworked and
lack of proper recognition for their creative contributions to the business of
making bestselling books. Increasingly we hear reports of submissions going
unacknowledged in overflowing ‘slushpiles’ and overtasked editors. It stands to
reason, then, that editors would want book proposals to arrive on their desks
as polished projects that they can immediately envision in terms of potential.
These they can effectively ‘run’ with as they pitch them in-house for


But what
if . . .?


once again had a bit of time and space
to connect and collaborate back-and-forth, to nurture artists and authors at all levels of their career?


What if
. . .?


editors, illustrators and art directors could meet in a kind of ‘writer’s room’
scenario like teams creating movie and TV series do?


What if .
. . ?


Authors (and
illustrators) with talent received encouragement and direction to work
collaboratively with editors to help them take their ideas to the next level
rather than just receiving no response or even an outright rejection to a
project that has a seed of promise? Could it elicit a spark that later led to great works?


What if . . .  editors had more time and space . . .
to reach out, to nurture a spark,
to collaborate in a conversation . . .?

letters may be a lost art, and emails are often at best short and business-oriented
– everyone is so busy and short of time - but knowing that an editor is in your
corner can mean the difference between being able to create the next big
masterpiece or not.


Take for
example the pivotal role legendary
editor Ursula Nordstrom (1910–1988) played in
bolstering Maurice Sendak at a key time in his early career, eventually leading
him to believe in himself enough to go on to create the enduring classic Where the Wild Things Are.

When Sendak
expressed his self-doubt in being able to stack up to the genius of Tolstoy and
illustrate his work, Ursula wrote:


Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their
books and they also know a lot of facts (“where the mouth of a river is”) but that isn’t the only sort of genius,
you know that. You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes,
Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express
as much emotion and “cohesion and purpose” in some of your drawings as there is
War and Peace.
I mean that. You write and draw from the inside out — which is why I said poet.


You are
growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me
the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote,
and to think about your letter.


You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak,
either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.” *



According to HarperCollins' website, 'Nordstrom had a simple philosophy regarding new authors. As one
colleague said, “Anyone who called, anyone who got off the elevator,
anyone who wrote in, could be seen and heard.” She always answered her
own phone, and on hearing another ringing, would cry out, “Answer that!
That might be the next Mark Twain.”

Dear Genius The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom
Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marcus

I wonder
if some of our great children’s picture books would have even come to fruition
and evolved in quite the same way without the space and support to experiment
and collaborate with editors and art directors?




and support of a

and mentor and listener to

bolster creative


like a real gem in this day and age. That TRUST and FAITH! Hopefully it isn’t too
elusive and the ways can be found to bring back that back-and-forth collaborative spirit in a
new, and perhaps even better, guise? We can but dream . .  .


on a postcard, please.



* letter
excerpted from Dear Genius: The Letters
of Urusla Nordstrom
, Collected and Edited by Leonard S Marcus


Ursula Nordstrom was the editor-in-chief
of juvenile books at Harper & Row, who helped nurture many talented
authors, such as Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon, EB White, author of Charlotte’s Web, Shel Silverstein, author of The Giving Tree, and Maurice
Sendak, illustrator and author of Where
the Wild Things Are



Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons,
illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for
Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020.
Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs

Blue Elephant Storyshaping,
an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering
writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find out about her new picture book webinar courses!
She is Co-Regional
Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles.
Find her at


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