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Posts Tagged ‘Ursula Nordstrom’

02 FEBRUARY, 2015

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

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“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.

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02 JANUARY, 2014

How Ursula Nordstrom, Beloved Patron Saint of Childhood, Did New Year’s Resolutions

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A lesson on the human condition from one of the biggest hearts in modern history.

History is peppered with famous resolution lists — take, for instance, those of Jonathan Swift, Susan Sontag, Marilyn Monroe, and Woody Guthrie — though we know little about how aspiration translated into actuality. But one of the most wonderful New Year’s resolutions, so heartening and yet so human, comes from legendary mid-century children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who brought to life such timeless 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).

In a January 2, 1957, letter to children’s book author Mary Stolz, found in Leonard Marcus’s magnificent Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — which also gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing and the infinitely heartwarming story of how she cultivated young Sendak’s genius — Nordstrom, irreverently witty as ever, pens this beautiful aspiration, arguably the greatest resolution a human being can make:

My New Year’s resolution is to be more loving. I don’t know how it will work out as I have been quite loving up to now with some disastrous, or at least misunderstood, results. Anyhow, I will try even more love and I will let you know what happens. So far not so good. But then it is only the second day.

Ten years later, a little over a week into January, Nordstrom articulates another universal human tendency: Our exasperation over broken resolutions as we find ourselves too trapped in our old habits of mind and too swept up in the momentum of familiar behavior to actually rewire our habit loops. Nordstrom bemoans this far too common frustration in a January 11, 1967 letter to Doris K. Stotz, editor of the American Library Association’s Top of the News journal:

Do please forgive me, Miss Stotz. My New Year’s resolution was that I was going to be calm, efficient, poised, but I am starting out 1967 the same old inefficient hectic way.

And yet Nordstrom was a living testament to how it’s possible to fill the world with kindness and light and wonderful things despite this perceived “hectic inefficiency.” Perhaps she was assuring herself as much as she was advising young Maurice Sendak when she wrote to him in 1961:

That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky.

For isn’t this the most we can ever aspire to do, whether as a formal resolution or as an everyday intention?

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21 NOVEMBER, 2013

To Live Long, Write for Children: Remembering Charlotte Zolotow

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Honoring one of the biggest hearts and most brilliant minds in children’s literature.

For those who hold children’s books dear, a little piece of the soul dies every time another beloved children’s book author or artist leaves us. It helps a little to know that the great Charlotte Zolotow (June 26, 1915–November 19, 2013) lived to be 98. (On a semi-serious aside: It seems that writing for children holds an especial promise of longevity, with many authors and illustrators outliving the average life expectancy of their homeland by years, often decades — Maurice Sendak lived to be 84, E. B. White 86, Ruth Krauss 92, Alice Provensen reportedly continues to draw well into her nineties, and Eric Carle just released his latest book at 84. There must be something uniquely soul-nourishing about the warmth and kindness that writing for children both requires and stimulates.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

Although she authored and edited more than seventy books, Zolotow remains best-known for Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, published in 1962 and illustrated by none other than Sendak. But the most influential relationship of her career was with the great Ursula Nordstrom, fairy godmother of modern children’s literature, who steered Zolotow’s collaboration with Sendak and with whom Zolotow worked closely for many years thereafter. From Leonard Marcus’s altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — which also gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing and the infinitely heartwarming story of how she cultivated young Sendak’s genius — comes the wonderful record of Zolotow’s formative relationship with Nordstrom.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

In August of 1961, when Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present was coming together, Nordstrom assured Sendak of Zolotow’s commitment to the project:

She is so glad you’re illustrating it, and so are we, that nothing can cloud our pleasure.

A few months later, on October 30, she sent a heartwarming letter to Zolotow herself:

Dear Charlotte—

Sendak’s pictures are so lovely for your (untitled) book! Utterly different from anything he’s ever done — with a timeless, classic quality: You’ll be happy, I know. The little girl is so lovely, and the rabbit is funny, a good combination, I think.

After thanking Zolotow for recommending a play Nordstrom had just seen and loved, and for Zolotow’s kind words about the only children’s book Nordstrom herself ever wrote, The Secret Language, she holds up a mirror of warm mutuality:

I can never tell you how grateful I am to you, dear friend and author. I’ve never had anyone — well, — be so generous and kind, certainly no AUTHOR — as you’ve been.

The longtime collaboration and lifelong friendship between the two began when Zolotow became Nordstrom’s editorial assistant at Harper & Row — a position that, under the influence of Nordstrom’s enormous generosity of spirit and creative bravery, no doubt helped Zolotow cultivate her own. In fact, she soon became Nordstrom’s right-hand-woman and was even the one to bring in Louise Fitzhugh’s hugely popular 1964 classic, Harriet the Spy, which queer women continue to celebrate for its trailblazing use of an apparently queer protagonist.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)

In a 2009 interview, Zolotow spoke of the interplay between being a writer and being an editor:

Being both a writer and editor affects different expressions of the same personality. Writers must shut out everyone else while they write. They must forget outside suggestions, or the temptation to follow suggestions separate from their own visions.

Editors must resist the desire to insert their own idea of how and where the story goes. They must resist the temptation to offer their own words as a solution when something is weak; instead they should alert the writer to this weakness, so that if the writer agrees, she may solve the problem in her own words and way.

When Nordstrom was ready to leave Harper, she bequeath her department to Zolotow. In a 1980 letter to another one of her authors, Mary Stolz, Nordstrom wrote:

I told Charlotte Zolotow many months ago that I wanted to slope off my job with Harper, and not be an editor any more. There are good things about it, always have been, but no more working with authors, dealing with contracts, worrying about the lack of reviews, or when there are bad ones, for “my” authors. Charlotte, as head of the department, is a brilliant and sensitive creative person. She will see that your work get the good attention I think you have always had from the dept.

Illustration by William Pène du Bois from William's Doll (1972)

And see to it she did — Zolotow went on to bring to life dozens of books for young readers, from her very first, The Park Book, published in 1944 and illustrated by H. A. Ray, to such delights as William’s Doll (1972) illustrated by William Pène du Bois and I Know a Lady (1984) illustrated by James Stevenson to her final book, The Beautiful Christmas Tree, published in 1999 and illustrated by the inimitable Yan Nascimbene, whom we also lost this year.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

Thank you for the many lovely presents, Charlotte.

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15 OCTOBER, 2013

E. B. White on Why He Wrote Charlotte’s Web, Plus His Rare Illustrated Manuscripts

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“A book is a sneeze.”

Legendary editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, is celebrated as the single most influential champion of innovation in children’s book publishing in the past century. Her vision ushered in a new era of imagination of literature for young readers and brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. More than merely an editor, Nordstrom, who famously cultivated the insecure genius of young Maurice Sendak, wore the hats of friend, therapist, confidante, and tireless defender of her young authors. Among her most memorable creative feats, however, is Charlotte’s Web (public library) by E. B. White, published on October 15, 1952.

E. B. White's second draft for the beginning of Charlotte's Web, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

A few weeks before the book’s release, however, the Harper & Row publicity department expressed unease about White’s choice of protagonist. Worried that a spider might revolt readers and critics, they asked him to explain his choice. On September 29, White sent Nordstrom a short note in response to her concern that the book endpapers are too bright (but not without an endearing Whitean tease: “I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper’”), then proceeded to address the PR people’s unease in a lengthy explanation of why he wrote a book featuring a spider. The letter, unearthed by Letters of Note, is itself an absolute masterpiece of prose and testament to White’s character, bespeaking at once his elegant command of the written word and his equally famed love of animals. (White’s bemused dismay at the inquiry was sure to fall on an understanding ear, as Nordstrom had her own feisty grievances with publishers’ unimaginative shallowness.)

E. B. White's drawings of the vectors of the web-spinning process, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

I have been asked to tell how I came to write “Charlotte’s Web.” Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did.

A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else — the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skilful, amusing and useful, and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.

One cold October evening I was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs. (I did not know her name at the time, but I admired her, and later Mr. Willis J. Gertsch of the American Museum of Natural History told me her name.) When I saw that she was fixing to become a mother, I got a stepladder and an extension light and had an excellent view of the whole business. A few days later, when it was time to return to New York, not wishing to part with my spider, I took a razor blade, cut the sac adrift from the underside of the shed roof, put spider and sac in a candy box, and carried them to town. I tossed the box on my dresser. Some weeks later I was surprised and pleased to find that Charlotte’s daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box. They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show.

At the present time, three of Charlotte’s granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.

I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.

E. B. White's notes on web weaving, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

White, in fact, had little patience for the objections some critics, librarians, teachers, and parents had to the book’s protagonist and his choice to tackle the subject of death in a children’s book, which he saw as an infringement on his creative vision and integrity as a writer. In an unpublished letter to Nordstrom, cited in The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (public library), White dismisses these concerns with his characteristically concise, sharp-witted satire:

I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.

Complement with the altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library), which also gave us Nordstrom’s infinitely heartening correspondence with young Sendak.

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