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Leonard S. Marcus has culled an exceptional collection of letters from the HarperCollins archives. The letters included here are representative of the brilliant correspondence that was instrumental in the creation of some of the most beloved books in the world today. Full of wit and humor, they are immensely entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving in their revelation of the devotion and high-voltage intellect of an incomparably gifted editor, mentor, and publishing visionary.Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was arguably the single most creative force for innovation in children’s book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century. Considered an editor of maverick temperament and taste, her unorthodox vision helped create such classics as Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and The Giving Tree.
Leonard S. Marcus has culled an exceptional collection of letters from the HarperCollins archives. The letters included here are representative of the brilliant correspondence that was instrumental in the creation of some of the most beloved books in the world today. Full of wit and humor, they are immensely entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving in their revelation of the devotion and high-voltage intellect of an incomparably gifted editor, mentor, and publishing visionary.
"Sentimentality is a failure of feeling," wrote Wallace Stevens. Legendary children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom would have agreed. Her engrossing correspondence reveals a long struggle to free kids' lit from the cloying baby talk that characterized the genre when she was a child. Although Nordstrom -- who worked at Harper & Row from 1931 to 1979 -- rejected stories that glorified a sterile nuclear family, she would never have endorsed facile it-takes-a-village multiculturalism either. Nordstrom threw herself into a messy, meta-political world of raw imagination and followed her own mandate: to publish "good books for bad children." Her literary offspring include Harriet the Spy, Charlotte's Web, Where the Wild Things Are and scads of other titles that conjure up a kid in bed, after hours, secretly turning pages with the aid of a forbidden flashlight.
Nordstrom's authors were among the first to address topics such as racial tension, homoeroticism and divorce. But breaking taboos was not her primary goal. Nordstrom prided herself on recognizing, and attending to, genius -- as her charmingly effusive letters demonstrate. To Maurice Sendak, whom she discovered in 1951 when the illustrator was still a window dresser at F.A.O. Schwarz, she writes, "Emotion combined with an artist's talent is ... RARE." Nordstrom saw herself as a conduit between author and child, sternly warning one critic "not to sift [his] reactions ... through [his] adult prejudices and neuroses."
The early letters in this well-edited collection recall a New York of carbon copies, cigarette smoke and author-publisher fidelity. Photographs show the stable of Harper authors with whom the editor communed from her vintage desk: Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, Shel Silverstein and so on. A daughter of the Depression, Nordstrom was troubled by wasted paper, and tried to cover each page of stationery completely before she pulled it from her typewriter. The result, as Leonard Marcus explains in his marvelous introduction, was "a solid, single-spaced wall of words."
Nordstrom was concerned about wasted talent, too. By turns girlish and maternal, stubborn and dismissive, she coached her "geniuses" aggressively. When her authors' family obligations interfered with the production schedule, she could be a real bully -- an odd attitude for a children's book editor but one that yielded bestsellers. In spite of her prodding, she never failed to entertain her correspondents. Nordstrom shared thoughts about creative vision, self-doubt, God and, inevitably, whether the monster on page such-and-such should look delighted or demented or both. Her letters lay bare the scaffolding behind the magic stage of picture books.
Childless herself, Nordstrom lived with her companion, Mary Griffith, and died of ovarian cancer in 1988. During her impressive tenure, she rarely lost an author to a rival publisher. Her no-nonsense style meshed well with her innate ability to understand kids. When asked by a librarian to state her qualifications as a publisher of children's literature, the editor answered sharply, "I am a former child." Readers of this unusual volume can imagine Nordstrom back at her office after that exchange, dashing off another breathless letter about ignorant grownups. -- Salon
Although he has the deepest respect for his subject, Marcus is not awestruck and includes letters that show her more human side (e.g., in a letter to writer Janice May Udry, she says 'I may have tried to have you understand that I am surrounded by moon-flowers. That is balderdash, dear... I am a real mess.') For the modern minions of corporate publishing, Marcus also offers evidence that Nordstrom, the first woman vice-president to head a Harper publishing division, also struggled to keep her books above the bottom line (e.g., from a letter to Robert Lipsyte, 'I am going to stop going to a lot of budget meetings, sessions about inventory revaluation and this summer will become an editor again'). An epistolary history of some of the highlights of children's literature, this extraordinary volume speaks to anyone who loves words, books or children.
Her editorial acumen and innate talent for nurturing, not smothering, her authors is apparent in her comments, as is her ability to sense the societal and aesthetic changes of the 20th century. It was her decision, after all, to publish both Harriet the Spy and Where the Wild Things Are, the two books which in content and execution mark the beginning of the modern age in books for children.
Nor were those decisions lightly made. In a letter to Nat Hentoff, composed two years after the publication of Wild Things, she gives as cogent an analysis of its impact as can be found anywhere, describing it as 'the first complete work of art in the picture book field, conceived, written, illustrated, executed in entirety by one person of authentic genius.' Nordstrom's wit is also much in evidence: 'I returned to my mortgaged little gray home on the hill...and the telephone was ringing and it was an author telephoning long distance to tell me good news about the third chapter, which was better than bad news about the third chapter but frankly no news about the third chapter was what I was longing to hear at that time on Sunday.' Although all her associations with authors and illustrators were memorable, not all were happy -- Meindert de Jong, for example, severed connections with her after considerable success under her guidance; she was continually concerned about John Steptoe's well-being. These insights into her personality can be approached chronologically -- the method by which the letters are organized -- or by using the index (not included in galley) to trace the development of a particular author or illustrator. Judicious use of footnotes and an extensive list of sources transform a beguiling compendium into an exemplary reference and scholarly resource as well. -- Horn
To Laura Ingalls Wilder
September 9, 1937
My dear Mrs. Wilder:
Miss Raymond received your letter last Friday afternoon and she planned to answer it at once. Unfortunately, however, she is not well and is out of the office for about a week.
I know she would want me to write you and try to apologize for that inexcusably stupid mistake in the dummy for On the Banks of Plum Creek4. She was extremely sorry that the error wasn't caught but I'm glad to be able to write you that it appeared only in the synopsis for the dummy. It certainly won't appear again! Miss Raymond, and all of us, were upset about it because, very frankly, every single bit of copy written for your lovely book has been worked over with enthusiasm and affection.
Plans for the poster are being worked out now, but doubtless Miss Raymond will write you herself as soon as she is back at her desk.
Department of Books for Boys and Girls
Assistant to Miss Raymond
To Georges Duplaix (CoU)
July 17, 1941
I am at a loss to understand your leaping to the conclusion that because your book (of which I have only heard vague rumors) is on the first page of our catalogue, we are short of really good books. I am not so naive as to think that your comment denotes modesty. No, it is disagreeable, unfriendly, vicious, and--how do they say--lousy.
Kindly do not feel concerned for the House of Harperbecause your book, or rather your alleged book, appears on the first page of our Tot Catalogue. An excess of good nature on my part should not indicate that there is cause to worry about this house. (As a matter of fact, Mr. Gergely's barge was what swung the first page for the book.)
Fortunately I am too proud to be vindictive, as the poet hath said. I therefore remain, honored sir,
Ursula (Anne Carroll) Nordstrom
To Margaret Wise Brown
October 28, 1941
It was good to see you this morning and I think the text of The Runaway Bunny is now perfect. Will you please sign the enclosed contract, and then send it on to Mr. Hurd? As soon as it comes back to us from him our signed copy will go to you, and your half of the advance of $400.00. His advance will be paid on delivery of completed, acceptable illustrations.
I enclose the text of Night and Day3. I'm glad you think it is "too loose," as you said this morning. You're right that it shouldn't be a real story but it does need pulling together and polishing.* I'm eager to see what you do to it.
*"More matter with less art"--as the bard said.
To Georges Duplaix (CoU)
October 10, 1942
Your gracious invitation and the beautiful drawing have brightened up a whole gloomy Saturday morning. I look forward with pleasure to luncheon on Wednesday.
I hope you are pleased by Mr. MacGregor's desire to bring a goose, and a photographer, and get the book some publicity. I wish it would make you once and for all infatuated with the enterprise and general sprightliness of this distinguished organization. (I desperately hope that you will not feel instead that we are acting out of turn in trying to arrange to have a goose at your luncheon...)
Mr. MacGregor’s telephone call to Variety about the goose, and in fact the whole situation, has made me a little light-headed and rather hysterical. Unaccustomed as I am to having a vice-president busy himself with details connected with this department, I think I surely must have died and gone to Heaven. Now I long to persuade Arthur (Dimples) Rushmore to come as Little Boy Blue. Mr. Burger4, the old thing, could come as Georgie Porgie; Mr. MacGregor could be Pretty Bobby Shaftoe; Mr. Hoyns could be Jack Sprat; I could be the cow with the crumpled horn. The possibilities are endless.... But, as I say, I am a bit hysterical.
Have you decided what to do about Miss Barksdale and Mrs. Becker?
I must tell you again that we are proud and happy to have The Tall Book of Mother Goose on our list. I’m so glad you are going to see more of Harpers on Wednesday. Everyone here thinks the book is brilliant and now they will tell you so themselves. They also think you are brilliant. As for me, I love you with all my heart.
Department of The Tall Book of Mother Goose
To Crockett Johnson
November 2, 1944
Dear Mr. Johnson:
We loved the pictures for The Carrot Seed2. Thanks a lot for a beautiful job. It's going to be a beautiful book. We’re having the type set now and proofs will be sent to you as soon as possible.
You're awfully busy, I know, and so we hesitate to raise even a small point about the pictures. But here it is. The little boy is perfect in most of the pictures but we are hoping that you will feel, as we do, that he shouldn’t look surprised or doubtful in any of them. One of the most charming and touching things in the original little dummy was the feeling that from start to finish the child was absolutely confident. But it seemed to us that in a few of the finished drawings that sense of sublime assurance was lacking. He looked dubious. What do you think? We're hoping that you will agree and that you will have time to put back that very splendid certainty. Will you?
Best wishes to you and our author.
To Katharine S. White
Posted March 9, 2001
She was cajoler, enabler, champion, critic, and friend. She was Ursula Nordstrom, Director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973 - a one of-a-kind editor who took 20th century children's literature by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good shake. Mentor to such luminaries as Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, E. B. White, Shel Silverstein, and Garth Williams, she was a visionary who dared publish the antithesis of yesteryear's bland, sugary children's prose. Thanks to her discernment and determination youngsters found thrall in a myriad of now time-honored stories, including Charlotte's Web, Goodnight Moon, and Where The Wild Things Are. Reading her collected letters titled Dear Genius (for she considered each of her authors and artists to be preternaturally gifted) is tantamount to having a lively, albeit too brief, one-on-one with the self-effacing, wry Ms. Nordstrom. You leave her presence reluctantly, knowing that such stimulating conversation is rare. The only child of two beautiful people - 'a gaslight-era matinee idol' and a pretty young actress, the editor would 'forever regard herself as an ugly duckling born of swans.' This lack of personal self-confidence didn't temper her considerable professional aplomb. When a doughty influential librarian challenged her by asking 'what qualified her, a nonlibrarian, nonteacher, nonparent, and noncollege graduate to publish children's books,' Ms. Nordstrom replied, 'Well, I am a former child, and I haven't forgotten a thing.' Unmarried and childless, she nonetheless related companionably to youngsters, continually seeking to publish books that would make 'any child feel warmed and attended to and considered.' Belittlers of her choices were dismissed as 'adults who sift their reactions to children's books through their own messy adult maladjustments.' Fearlessly confrontational in defense of her authors and artists, she was also psychological and practical support, shoring up a diffident young Sendak with, 'You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn't Sendak, either.' To Garth Williams, whom she feared financially strapped, she offered a monthly stipend. A chatty, voluble correspondent Ms. Nordstrom's letters hold self-revelatory comments - a regard for Adlai Stevenson; an aversion to New York City - 'a cement island;' and eclectic tastes: 'Would Virginia Woolf be sickened to know that she is loved by one who also reads `Confidential'?' Her notes are punctuated with an engaging, self-deprecating wit, as when she admitted, '....I may have tried to impress you at one time with the beauty and general poetry of my existence....That is balderdash, dear.....I am a real mess...I can walk onto a lovely green plot of land, and tall strong trees turn brown...' These letters, penned between 1937 and 1982 are a chronicle of the highlights in the children's publishing world, as well as affirmation of the editor's devotion to her craft and colleagues. Ursula Nordstrom left no immediate heirs when she died in 1982 - generation upon generation of delighted 'warmed and attended to' children are her beneficiaries.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.