Ursula Nordstrom was the head editor at Harpers for many decades, and this is a collection of her professional letters to the authors and illustrators we all love. If ever was a book that everyone on my list here would agree on, it's this.
Not only was Ursula a daring, ground-breaking editor who revolutionized children's books, but she was also a brilliant communicator. This book is a must for anybody in publishing (authors and editors and aspirants alike).
Marcus compiles these letters and presented the collection in, Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. These letters maintain both their original structure and preserved content into Nordstrom as a person, the editing world, and the careers of famous childrens authors and illustrators. The concluding letters Marcus chose to supplement the collection help shed a more expansive look at Nordstrom and her career as the content therein teeters on a personal echelon than the primarily professional one in previous letters. Dear Genius is a selective read that isnt for everyone but suggested for those interested in a peep into the world of famous childrens authors/illustrators in the 40s-70s and/or Ursula Nordstrom.
So what better way to deal with it then finish Ursula Nordstrom's funny letters where, she too, pokes fun at her weight, "Well, I was all alone in the office eating my low-fat meatloaf sandwich..." or "I am dieting madly so details of food are always welcome..." or her explanation of her dog's congenital malfunction of the pyloric valve that made the pooch skinny "Maybe I'll have a nifty operation to make my pyloric valve malfunction. Come down and slip into one and we can have a good talk." After getting my shot in the arm of Ursula humor and insights into the world of publishing, maybe I won't need a straitjacket. If you want a glimpse into the workings of the publishing system and rapport an editor has with an author then I highly recommend this book. The turn of phrase, self-deprecating humor, candor, and risk-taking that Ursula shows make reading her tale delicious (gawl dang it, even my adjectives make me wanna eat.) Plus, she can't spell very well. What becomes apparent in the overall effect of the letters is Ursula's ability to nurture author's talents and make suggestions without presenting ultimatums. A joy I got from reading Ursula's epistles are the humor and perspective she gives toward work and living each day. Love to you and George, Ursula Scrooge." At one point I had to stop rewriting all of her great quotes because it felt like I was recopying the entire book. Another had New York Public Library's Superintendent, Frances Sayers, criticizing John Donovan's children's book about a thirteen-year-old boy who has feelings for another boy that leave him confused. Of course, the letter to John from Ursula is pretty funny: "Right after I sent you my illiterate wail about Mrs. Sayer's idiotic letter about your book, I have received a copy of your reasoned, well-mannered, well-written reply to her. Like, wow!" Ursula was commenting on the controversy she knew would come with the publication Maurice Sendak's newest book, In the Night Kitchen.
I'm not usually a big fan of collections of letters, but living with Ursula Nordstrom and her many close, occasionally combative, frank and loving letters to the writers and illustrators she worked with for 30 odd years the past two weeks has been an utter delight. Secondly, it tells the story of American children's publishing, which began to flourish as public libraries set up children's sections, and children's librarian went looking for books to fill their shelves. Her letters to White about illustrations for 'Stuart Little' and 'Charlotte's Web' - are particularly entrancing for a big fan like me. 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. To Maurice Sendak, as 'Where the Wild Things Are' was just about to be released: Maurice, before I sent the paste-up I went through it, rereading the words, and looking at the pictures again. 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 to do. I've felt sort of down in the dumps about picture books lately (and those who write and illustrate and buy and review them too, to be frank!).
Where the Wild Things Are. A Kiss for Little Bear. The first thing I noticed while reading Nordstrom's letters: she's funny. In her very first letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder as an assistant editor, Nordstrom writes, "all of us were upset about an editorial error in her book because, very frankly, every single bit of copy written for your lovely book has been worked over with enthusiasm and affection". There is something holy about the books you read as a little kid. For someone who cried over Charlotte's death, who tried to start a spy notebook like Harriet, whose aldolescence was defined by Freaky Friday, who still reads The Runaway Bunny when she can't sleep at night -- meeting Ursula Nordstrom is like coming home.
This really was a golden age for children's literature, and it was so fun to see letters and production details about some of my favorite books. I loved reading acceptance letters and production details for favorite books such as Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte's Web, and The First Four Years.
One of my favorite quotes from the introduction: "Asked pointedly by Anne Carroll Moore, the New York Public Library's superintendent of work with children, what qualified her, a nonlibrarian, nonteacher, nonparent, and non college graduate oh yeah!
If you love children's books, this is the book for you. I will be sharing this with other friends who love children's literature - it is too good a book to sit forgotten on my shelf.
Other authors she edited included Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss, Crockett Johnson, Charlotte Zolotow, John Steptoe, M.E. Kerr, among others. Nordstrom began at Harper & Row in 1936 and was promoted to editor in chief of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls in 1940.