Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

If you ever read a book, or were a child, or read a book to a child–if your childhood was shaped in any way by the books you read–then you should buy this book and read it immediately. It’s available at the astonishingly low price of $5.36 U.S. from Amazon. Go order it. Now! Then spend a few hours in the company of a woman who helped make you who you are, and make childhood what it is, through her passion, enthusiasm, and advocacy for children’s literature. Good Night Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Harriet the Spy…these and many, many more books were published by the Department of Books for Boys and Girls at Harper’s under the guidance of Ursula Nordstrom. Until a couple of weeks ago I had never heard her name, and now I consider her one of the best friends I have that I’ve never actually met. She actually reminds me a lot of my grandmother, also an editor, also a working woman in a man’s world, also a passionate lover of the written word, and also a firm believer that you could accomplish almost anything with a great letter, especially one bursting with conviction and affection and bristling with CAPS, dashes, and exclamation points. The combination of Nordstrom’s powerful personality and lively writing style and the interest and nostalgia of the discussions of so many now classic children’s books makes this volume an enormous treat to read. Because you are all going to rush out and get your own copies, I won’t do more here than touch on some of the many highlights. Here’s Nordstrom writing to Maurice Sendak in 1963 (Nordstrom contracted Sendak as an illustrator in 1950 when he was working at F. A. O. Schwartz setting up window displays):

Maurice, before I sent the paste-up I went through it, rereading the words, and looking at the pictures again. It is MOST MAGNIFICENT, and we’re so proud to have it on our list. When you were much younger, and had done only a couple of books, I remember I used to write you letters when the books were finished, and thank you for “another beautiful” job — or some such dopiness. Now you’re rich and famous and need no words of wonder from me. But I must send them, anyhow, when I look through Where the Wild Things Are. I think it is utterly magnificent, and the words are beautiful and meaningful, and it does just what you wanted it to do. And you did just what you wanted to do.

I’ve felt sort of down in the dumps about picture books lately, (and about those who write and illustrate and buy and review them, too, to be frank!). But this bright beautiful Monday your beautiful book is exhilarating, and it reminds me that I love creative people and love to publish books for creative children.

Her conviction that children are creative, and that they and their imaginations will flourish if only plodding adults will get out of their way, is one of her most attractive qualities–it seems even more appealing and important today, actually, because a former student told me a shocking story about the preschool teacher she’s currently working with who does not allow any fiction at all in her classroom, including, explicitly and emphatically, books with such unrealistic ingredients as talking animals. No Charlotte’s Web for them, though perhaps this anecdote in one of Nordstrom’s letters to E. B. White would help to change her mind:

I went to a convention of librarians and saw a lot of good souls there and I met a lot of teachers, too. I was really amazed and pleased to discover how many of them (teachers) know and use some of the good children’s books–especially your two. One teacher told me that she’d had a principal who didn’t care what she did with her students as long as she “got them through the Cumberland Gap by Thanksgiving.” But, she said, she was trying to stand firm and trying to use books imaginatively with her students. Or scholars, as you put it. She said she had one class of “culturally deprived” you should excuse the expression youngsters, and she was supposed to “teach them Emerson’s essay on Friendship.” She said it was a lost cause so instead she read them Charlotte’s Web which, she stated, does everything Emerson could have done……She put it better, but I thought it was a good idea and wanted to tell you about it.

We long for another E. B. White book.

She boosts and encourages and promotes and hassles and celebrates and coddles and challenges her writers, determined to get the very best out of them she possibly can–for them, and for the children. (In his introduction, editor Leonard Marcus notes that her characteristic marginal note was “N.G.E.F.Y.,” or “Not Good Enough For You”–which is indeed a brilliant and highly motivating combination of praise and criticism.) It’s endlessly engaging to read her missives to them. I found the back-and-forth about illustrations particularly fascinating; here’s a little bit from a letter to Katharine White (E. B.’s wife):

You will see that in the sample drawings for Stuart Little Mr. [Garth] Williams did one picture in different techniques. We like the more detailed technique, don’t you? He was careful about lots of small but important details. For instance, in the picture of the doctor examining Stuart, Stuart is standing up. Mr. Williams had him lying down in the first sketch but changed it because he was afraid he might look like a little dead mouse if he were lying down. (That is probably a silly detail to pass on to you, but it was somehow encouraging to us.)

Garth Williams (who also did the drawings for the Little House books) was the illustrator for Charlotte’s Web as well:

On drawing marked (1) [Nordstrom writes to EBW] Charlotte has 8 eyes, which apparently she should have. Two on the top of her head, two low on the sides of her head, two where eyes usually are, and two where Garth has indicated a nose. I think that if the nose dots were made larger (as her eyes would be) and the line he has put in for her mouth were omitted, she would be still attractive but more of a spider. I put a small piece of paper over that line of her mouth and she looked better (less like a person).

Tell me you didn’t just go get your copy (of course you have one, right?) of the illustrated Charlotte’s Web to check out Charlotte’s eyes!

My favourite mode for Nordstrom, though, is advocate. She is impatient with bumbling adults who put their limited imaginations in the way of children’s more innocent, creative, and adventurous way of looking at and experiencing the world. In 1954, she rattles off a long (in this edition, nearly five full pages) letter to a Harper’s rep who was struggling with complaints about How to Make an Earthquake by Ruth Krauss, the author of A Hole is to Dig (which Sendak illustrated). “I bleed at every pore,” she tells him, “when I read your plaintive statement to the Sales Manager, ‘I wonder if the book couldn’t stand a little editing if it isn’t too late.” It is too late, she tells him, but more importantly, it would be a huge mistake, a catastrophe, to revise the book in order to placate buyers who thought it encouraged children to be messy and disrespectful. “What does Ruth have to do to convince some of your customers that she knows something about children they don’t know?” Nordstrom wonders. “Oh hell, it all boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of wonderful stuff to some adults, Jim”:

I saw the finished book, type and pictures, yesterday, and it is really swell. The pictures are delightful. There will be a couple of ‘activities’ that some grown-ups will object to but the book as a whole is a book of freshness, imagination, love, originality, humor, pathos, and–well, take your pick of flap-copy nouns. Just look at the last line of the How to Entertain Telephone Callers–which ends “or whatever is your talent.” Believe me, that is so close to children, so exactly right, so damn warm and perfect that any little child can’t help but feel happier at the moment when it is read to him. “Happier” isn’t the right word. I guess I mean that “or whatever is your talent” can’t help but make any child feel warm and attended to and considered. And, believe me, not many children’s books make children feel considered. No child would define it that way but you’ll know what I mean.

“Krauss books,” she admits, “will not charm those sinful adults who sift their reactions through their own messy adult maladjustments.” But rather than edit the book to please them, she stands up and fights for a book that is “pure 100% Krauss.”

Perhaps her most heroic moment is her defense of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, which as I’m sure all of us remember, includes among its many wonderful drawings one of “a little naked 6-year old,” as Nordstrom describes it to E. B. White. “I have had several requests,” she goes on, “for a revised edition in which the little boy is clothed or covered in some graceful way.” One librarian took it upon herself to solve this problem by painting on a diaper. “Other librarians might wish to do the same,” said a letter to the School Library Journal. Nordstrom’s statement in response to this act of  “censorship by mutilation”  is a manifesto not just for children’s books but for the whole idea of creative freedom, and for the principles of openness and access that libraries in particular ought to represent:

A private individual who owns a book is free, of course, to do with it as he pleases; he may destroy his property, or cherish it, even paint clothes on any naked figures that appear in it. But it is an altogether different matter when a librarian disfigures a book purchased with public funds–thereby editing the work of the author–and then presents this distortion to the library’s patrons.

The mutilation of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen by certain librarians must not be allowed to have an intimidating effect on creators and publishers of books for children. We, as writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, and librarians, deeply concerned with preserving the First Amendment freedoms for everyone involved in communicating ideas, vigorously protest this exercise of censorship.

452 writers, illustrators, publishers, critics, and librarians signed the letter.

Nordstrom is just as outspoken on the challenges of being a working woman in a male-dominated environment as she is on everything else; she helped later generations of women understand themselves better by supporting works like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and its sequel, The Long Secret, which included the first mention of menstruation in literature for young people:

I remember clearly the day I read the manuscript of The Long Secret and came upon the part devoted to Beth Ellen’s first menstruation. I wrote in the margin, “Thank you, Louise Fitzhugh!”, for it seemed to me it was about time that this subject, of such paramount importance to little girls of Beth Ellen’s age, was mentioned naturally and accepted in a children’s book as part of life.

Here’s a moment where her efforts certainly touched my own life:

The great Shel Silverstein told Marlo Thomas the great Marlo Thomas to look me up while she is in NY making a TV special. . . She is very caught up with Women’s Lib . . . and she has been upset by some of the ‘sexist literature’ being fed to children. She had seen a couple of particularly obnoxious books called I’m Glad I’m a Girl and I’m Glad I’m a Boy. What she wants to do is make a record for Caedmon Records (very good people) that people can play to their children, and she hoped I could find her some writers who would contribute brief stories and/or poems which will in some way counteract the sexist stuff. I showed her William’s Doll

That’s right: the resulting album was Free to Be…You and Me. (When I listened to it as a child, I never fully appreciated the track “Parents are People”–now it means a lot more to me!)

The fun just goes on and on, and my appreciation for who Nordstrom was and what she accomplished just goes up and up as I look through the volume again, but I can’t go on forever here–and you need time to read the whole thing for yourself, so I’ll end by thanking SD (again!) for another unexpectedly great reading experience.

6 thoughts on “Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

  1. Lisa Lucas September 15, 2010 / 2:25 pm

    Your comments made me realize this is a book I should reread: I read it when it was initially published–as did many of my colleagues at the publishing house where we worked–and it was a joy, and it renewed my faith in the publishing enterprise. That faith is sorely tested some times… Many thanks for devoting attention to this work on OLM.


  2. Lisa Peet September 15, 2010 / 5:59 pm

    Rohan, thanks for this. I’ve had the book for years — bought it at Housing Works, in fact, when I used to work around the corner — but have only ever dipped and dabbled. I think I need to dive in now.


  3. verbivore September 16, 2010 / 10:34 am

    What a wonderful discovery! I look forward to getting a copy. Nordstrom seems a formidable and delightful woman, and like you, I’d never heard of her before. I hope there are still many, many book professionals with her perspective and lively spirit.


  4. Rohan September 16, 2010 / 9:35 pm

    As you can tell, I recommend it! I was reading it the day Hurricane Earl knocked our lights out for about 28 hours, and I felt very fretful as the light from the window began to fade because I didn’t want to stop reading. (Yes, we have flashlights, but they’re in high demand once it gets dark!) I think reading about so many books I loved as a child was part of the charm, for sure, but it is definitely a book to renew one’s faith in publishing (and editing).


  5. Opinioness of the World September 19, 2010 / 10:52 pm

    Rohan, I cannot thank you enough for this fab review! I too had never heard of Ursula Nordstrom. It’s wonderful to know that there was a stalwart advocate for brilliant children’s literature. She supported books (some of my faves!) that didn’t condescend but rather bolstered their imaginations. How lucky are we that Nordstrom was a literary ally. I want to read this book right now!


  6. Rohan September 20, 2010 / 8:55 am

    Megan, I know a certain bookish person who would be happy to round you up a copy, I’m sure!


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