Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Krauss’

02 FEBRUARY, 2015

How Ursula Nordstrom, the Greatest Patron Saint of Modern Childhood Stood, Up for Creativity Against Commercial Cowardice

By:

“Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults.”

Hardly anyone has raised more conscientious, imaginative children than legendary Harper & Row children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910–October 11, 1988), who brought to life such multi-generational classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964). Nordstrom was more than an editor to her authors and artists — she was often their therapist, confidante and friend, and always their creative guardian and greatest champion. Above all, Nordstrom was a fearless custodian of the child’s world and imaginative experience, to which unimaginative grownups so often lay perilous claim, and of the artist’s creative integrity in the face of growing commercial pressures toward marketable conformity and safe, commodified, politely pedestrian storytelling. Modern childhood’s most benevolent patron saint turned out to be a childless gay woman living through the height of consumerism in America and yet managing to envision, publish, and defend children’s books that were not forgettable commodities but masterpieces that stood the test of time and enchanted generations.

Her deeply lovable spirit blossoms in the pages of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — an endlessly rewarding volume by children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, which also gave us Nordstrom’s heartening New Year’s resolution, her feisty response to a conservative librarian who had tried to censor Maurice Sendak, and her witty, wise, and prescient lament about the state of publishing.

In July of 1966, twelve years before Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nordstrom corresponded with the author about his book Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories, which she was about to publish with illustrations by a young Maurice Sendak — an artist whom she nursed out of insecurity and into genius, perhaps more so than with any of the other now-legendary artists and authors who came of age under Nordstrom’s wing. She writes to Singer:

To see Zlateh the Goat taking shape, becoming a book children (and their parents) will read and love for generations has been a tremendous experience for me. I think your stories have inspired some of Maurice Sendak’s very finest work. All of us in the department love your book… I think it’s going to bring you a special sort of happiness too.

Half a century before Sendak, already a cultural icon, scoffed at the artificial divide between “children’s” and “adult” books in his final interview, Nordstrom adds:

You’ve wondered why Sendak didn’t do adult books. And once you asked me if I wouldn’t rather be an editor of adult books. But most adults are dead and beyond hope after the age of thirty, and I think with Zlateh you will find a new and marvelous audience. God knows too many children’s books are routine, cynically produced, coarsely promoted. But Zlateh is a complete success artistically.

But her most fierce and emboldening defense of creative integrity against commercial cowardice came more than a decade earlier, shortly after her famous lament that what children read, and thus what shapes their minds, is being decided by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” In February of 1954, Nordstrom received a letter from a Harper & Row West Coast salesman named Jim Blake, reporting of an unpleasant encounter with a “cross buyer” who had complained about How to Make an Earthquake — a sweet, irreverent faux-activity book by the uncommonly original Ruth Krauss, in the vein of How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, featuring such how-to activity ideas as making a “tunnel of love for kittens without a mother” and balancing a peanut on your nose. The indignant buyer had found some of the activities inappropriate, betraying a profound inability to comprehend the subtle humor of Krauss’s book and her deep respect for the child’s imaginative freedom.

Nordstrom, a lifelong guardian of childhood’s imaginative inner world, replied to Blake with an exquisite defense of Krauss — an author whose magnificent collaborations with young Sendak are among my all-time favorite children’s books — and of the broader spirit the buyer had failed to understand, let alone appreciate. More than seven decades later, in an age when so many writers and artists are being squeezed out of their creative vision and vigor by “mediocre ladies in influential positions,” Nordstrom stands as our most heartening example of what it means to stand — and stand up — for all the right things.

She writes:

I am crushed to the ground and I bleed at every pore 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 for any changes and lateness aside, if we want to publish Ruth Krauss AND WE DO we have to publish 100% pure Krauss. She knows something we don’t know … and most grownups don’t know. As for “a little editing,” well, Ruth has written a lot of books for us and it has been an exciting and rewarding experience for me, as an editor, to watch her grow and grow and develop and go deeper and deeper. I respect her instinct and her final judgments and when she decides that there is nothing more she can honestly do to a book I have to respect her knowledge and trust her. Because she is the one with the talent — and I’m only someone who recognizes and loves creative talent.

Of course — and this is both the great gift and the great tragedy of this letter — Nordstrom’s ability to recognize creative talent and stand behind it, wholeheartedly and resolutely, is itself a monumental talent of increasing rarity. Those who possess it are few and far between, but when books are born out of it, it shows and never fails to delight.

And yet Nordstrom, a woman of unrelenting compassion, recognizes that her West Coast colleague is just trying to do his job and “sell a few books,” so she offers:

Can’t you tell some of those rather limited and thoroughly grown up adults that it is about time THEY accepted and trusted Krauss? … What does Ruth have to do to convince some of your customers that she knows something about children they don’t?

Nordstrom is especially adamant about not dulling Krauss’s creative edge by forcing her — or any of her authors — to conform to a template that has proven successful in the past:

She doesn’t do the same thing over and over and if she ever starts she won’t be Ruth Krauss. She’ll always be good but when she stops blazing new trails … she won’t be the writer she is now.

Most of all, however, Nordstrom stands up for Krauss’s ability to bridge the child’s world and the adult’s:

Grown-ups and children together with a Ruth Krauss book can be closer than they can be without a Ruth Krauss book… I don’t know how important adults and children feeling closer together is but I guess it wouldn’t do adults and children any harm not to feel far apart for a little while, just long enough to enjoy a Krauss book together.

Oh hell, it just boils down to: you just can’t explain this sort of basic wonderful stuff to some adults… Just look at the last line of the How to Entertain Telephone Callers — which ends “or whatever is your talent.” Believe me, this 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 warmed and attended to and considered. And, believe me, not many children’s books make children feel considered.

[…]

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit that he doesn’t know the answers to everything.

Nordstrom’s point — like so much of the enormous warmth and wisdom collected in Dear Genius — transcends this particular incident and even the general question of creative integrity in children’s books, and reminds us that being bewitched by wonder in any of its permutations requires precisely such an admission of not having the answers to everything. Just ask an astrophysicist.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

17 APRIL, 2014

I Can Fly: A Heartening Vintage Gem by Ruth Krauss, with Illustrations by Celebrated Disney Artist Mary Blair

By:

Simple verses with a thoughtful message.

Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993) is one of the most inspired and imaginative children’s storytellers of the twentieth century. Under the great Ursula Nordstrom‘s wing — who had a special gift for nurturing young talent — Krauss went on to write nearly fifty books, including two tender collaborations with young Maurice Sendak. Among her loveliest is I Can Fly (public library), originally published in 1951 as part of the beloved Little Golden Book series. A seemingly simple, wonderfully uplifting rhyme by Krauss, with illustrations by the celebrated Disney artist Mary Blair (who developed the concept art for such Disney classics as Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland) the book was mercifully resurrected from the cemetery of out-of-print treasures and republished in a crisp new edition, which is even available in digital form.

A bird can fly.
So can I.

A cow can moo.
I can too.

Underneath the light verses is a playful but profound reminder of our connection with the natural world and the notion that we aren’t so different from our fellow nonhuman beings, with whom we share a reality in an intricate mesh of belonging.

I’m merrier
than a terrier.

Pitter pitter pat
I can walk like a cat.

But Krauss’s most important message wasn’t an overt one. In fact, what makes her books especially exceptional is that she frequently featured female protagonists — far from the norm at the time and, sadly, still an exception half a century later when only 31% of books feature female lead characters. It may seem like a simple thing — the seemingly benign choice of hero or heroine in a children’s story — but to offer a quietly dissenting alternative to a fragment of hegemonic culture is no small gift. Krauss was a generous gift-giver.

Howl howl howl
I’m an old screech owl.

Short as it may be, I Can Fly is infinitely delightful in its entirety. Complement it with Open House for Butterflies, Krauss’s final and loveliest collaboration with Sendak.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

25 JULY, 2013

Open House for Butterflies: Ruth Krauss’s Final and Loveliest Collaboration with Maurice Sendak

By:

“Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child.”

Beloved children’s author Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993) penned more than thirty books for little ones over the course of her forty-year career, but remains best-known as half of one of the most celebrated author-illustrator duos of all time, the other half being none other than Maurice Sendak. Their eight-year partnership, masterminded by the great Ursula Nordstrom who also nursed Sendak into genius, produced such soul-stirring, heart-warming delights as the hopelessly wonderful ode to friendship I’ll Be You and You Be Me. But Krauss’s eighth and final* collaboration with Sendak, Open House for Butterflies (public library | IndieBound), was arguably their loveliest. Originally published in 1960 and thankfully, unlike what happens to a tragic many out-of-print gems, reprinted in 2001, this tiny treasure is a timeless smile-inducer for children and grown-ups alike.

Open House for Butterflies is absolutely wonderful in its entirety, an epitome of the Krauss-Sendak magic that nurtured generations of children to blossom into creative, thoughtful, just-the-right-amount-of-irreverent adults.

But no one captured the spirit of the Krauss kid more wonderfully than Nordstrom herself: In a letter from January 29, 1952, found in the altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library), Nordstrom writes to her author months before the first Krauss-Sendak book was released:

Last week-end I saw a television program (yes, I have a tv set and the other children’s book editors think I’m horrible to have one but I just toss my lovely head and act defiant) and on it was the most attractive 4 year old boy I’ve ever seen. very close, manly hair cut, and a darling face with dimples. The repulsive master of ceremonies said to him: “Tell me, Craig, when did you get those dimples?” and the m.c. grinned a baby-talk sort of grin, and the audience of adults giggled lovingly. And the kid looked at him and said: “When I got my face.” His tone of voice was reasonable and courteous and trying not to indicate what a silly question that one was. . . . Doesn’t look so wonderful written down, but it was wonderful. A Krauss Kid, I thought happily to myself.

In another letter from February of 1954, Nordstrom tells one of Harper & Row’s West Coast representatives:

Krauss books can be bridges between the poor dull insensitive adult and the fresh, imaginative, brand-new child. But of course that only will work if the dull adult isn’t too dull to admit he doesn’t know the answer to everything. Krauss books will not charm those sinful adults who sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy adult maladjustments. That is a sin and I meet it all the time. But there are some adults who don’t sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy adult maladjustments and I guess those are the ones who will love and buy Krauss.

* In 2005, Sendak re-illustrated a new edition of Krauss’s 1948 gem Bears, originally illustrated by Phyllis Rowand, thus producing a sort of posthumous ninth collaboration.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

11 JULY, 2013

I’ll Be You and You Be Me: A Vintage Ode to Friendship and Imagination, Illustrated by Sendak

By:

“Indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and — well, pure in the best sense.”

In 1952, more than a decade before Where the Wild Things Are catapulted him into creative celebrity, the inexhaustibly brilliant Maurice Sendak began collaborating with beloved children’s book author Ruth Krauss, of whom Sendak is cited to have said, “Prior to the commercialization of children’s books, there was Ruth Krauss.” He illustrated eight of her books during her lifetime, as well as a posthumous edition of one of her earliest books in 2005, twelve years after Krauss died. Perhaps the most delightful of their collaborations is I’ll Be You and You Be Me (public library) — a heartwarming and witty ode to the empathic bonds of friendship and a celebration of children’s wild and whimsical imagination, originally published in 1954.

Though this gem was reprinted in 1982, it is sadly long out of print — why is this so often the case with yesteryear’s treasures? — but used copies can still be found with some looking. I’ve managed to get a hold of an original first edition. Please enjoy.

Among Krauss’s delightful verses is also this wonderful addition to history’s finest definitions of love, reminiscent of the Peanuts classic Love Is Walking Hand in Hand:

shoes shoes
little black shoes
little black shoes
with little black bows —
someday someday
little black shoes
with little black bows
on the toes —

A year after I’ll Be You and You Be Me was published, the great Ursula Nordstrom, who had been not only Sendak’s editor but also his confidante, therapist, loving friend, and greatest champion, wrote in a letter to 27-year-old Maurice about his illustrations for another Krauss book, which could just as easily apply to this one:

There are a few peaks in an editor’s life, and seeing those pictures of yours has been a peak of mine. They are indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and — well, pure in the best sense.

How perfectly and purely put, and how sorely Nordstrom’s passionate spirit is missed.

Complement this with Sendak’s little-known and lovely illustrations of Tolstoy and his posthumous love letter to the world.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.