A Witty and Wise 1953 Letter from Legendary Children’s Book Editor Ursula Nordstrom
On imagination, comfort zones, and how to stand up to mediocre ladies in influential positions.
By Maria Popova
As a lover of children’s books, I adore legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom (1910-1988), who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973. Credited with 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), she is often considered the single most influential champion of innovation in children’s book publishing in the past century, whose vision ushered in a new era of imagination of literature for little ones.
Recently, my friends from Enchanted Lion Books, the lovely indie children’s publishing house up the street from me, resurfaced a wonderful gem from Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, one of my 5 favorite collections of famous correspondence. Dated March 4, 1953, this fascinating, heartfelt, and amusing letter to Dutch author and Maurice Sendak collaborator Meindert Dejong captures both the remarkable conviction with which Nordstrom approached children’s literature and the dangers that plagued, and continue to plague, truly visionary publishing.
(In fact, it’s sad to see such “mediocre ladies in influential positions” still dictate what gets published and ultimately invited into kids’ imagination today, and the dangerous combination of “influential and unimaginative” bedevils so much of contemporary media well beyond children’s publishing.)
I get absolutely wild some days, thinking of you keeping that darn job in that church, so you can write your wonderful books. But you are praising the Lord in your own fashion, Mick, as even I am doing in my own modest, harassed, untalented fashion. And I can assure you that you are a happier and more successful human being than most of the authors who hack out those machine-made, tailored to order, bloodless Landmark Books. But why am I telling you all this, Gustave, when you know it already? I’m giving myself a pep talk, I guess, because even an editor gets discouraged sometimes. You wrote me ‘I do know that if you depart from the usual run the librarians and teachers who control the juvenile field are scared’ and I guess that is true some of the time but not all of the time. I haven’t any author like Meindert DeJong on this list but some of the other books we’ve been publishing are sort of unusual, and off-beat, and I KNOW the children would love and recognize them, but they come up against some influential and unimaginative and thoroughly grown-up and finished and rigid adults. Some mediocre ladies in influential positions are actually embarrassed by an unusual book and so prefer the old familiar stuff which doesn’t embarrass them and also doesn’t give the child one slight inkling of beauty and reality. This is most discouraging to a creative writer, like you, and also to a hardworking and devoted editor like me.
Did I ever tell you that several years ago, after the Harper management saw that I could publish children’s books successfully, I was taken out to luncheon and offered, with great ceremony, the opportunity to be an editor in the adult department? The implication, of course, was that since I had learned to publish books for children with considerable success perhaps I was now ready to move along (or up) to the adult field. I almost pushed the luncheon table into the lap of the pompous gentleman opposite me and then explained kindly that publishing children’s books was what I did, that I couldn’t possibly be interested in books for dead dull finished adults, and thank you very much but I had to get back to my desk to publish some more good books for bad children.”
Dear Genius — whose cover features a portrait of Nordstrom by Maurice Sendak — is an absolute treat in its entirety, brimming with insights on and epitomes of integrity, intuition, and creative vision that far transcend the world of children’s publishing.
Published February 6, 2012