The New York Times
By Rebecca Pepper Sinkler – March 22, 1998.
Ursula Nordstrom was arguably the greatest editor of American children’s books in this century — a Maxwell Perkins for the Tot Department, as she called her bailiwick at Harper & Row. From the evidence in this collection of her letters, not only did she change literature for young people, she changed the lives of many who created it.
For most of her career, she practiced her wizardry from an understaffed, wildly messy office in Harper’s department of Books for Boys and Girls, where she arrived as a shy young assistant to the director in 1936. By the time she retired in 1980 she had discovered or nurtured the talents of Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak, Garth Williams, E. B. White, Charlotte Zolotow and Shel Silverstein, among many others whose names may not be as well known but whose titles are part of our childhood and our children’s: ”Harriet the Spy,” ”Little Bear,” ”Julie of the Wolves,” ”Harold and the Purple Crayon,” ”Freaky Friday.”
Nordstrom couldn’t spell and often couldn’t make decisions. She never went to college. She had no children. Even she doubted her own credentials. Once, when challenged by some prune of a children’s librarian as to her fitness to publish children’s books, she could think of no immediate defense. ”Well, I am a former child,” she said, ”and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”
The reluctance to put away childish things may be a requirement of genius. Certainly Nordstrom believed it to be so for the curious breed of genius she worked with — those who know how to write and draw for children. She retained her capacity for anarchic silliness and terror, and gravitated toward others who did likewise. In fact, she mistrusted those who had too much self-restraint. Once, when her bosses at Harper’s, recognizing her talents as an editor (and her ability to pick sellers) offered her a ”promotion” from the children’s to the adults’ department, she was infuriated. She told them, as she wrote afterward to the Newbery Award-winning author Meindert DeJong, ”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.”
Bad children were those normal youngsters who, like Max in Maurice Sendak’s ”Where the Wild Things Are,” were occasionally put to bed without their supper. Nordstrom knew that children would love reading about the crimes and punishments of fellow miscreants. She despised the genteel, sentimental tone of American children’s literature. Her maverick sensibilities leaned more to the English tradition that brought us Peter Rabbit, Alice and the nonsense of Edward Lear.
She paid a price for taking risks. You need know only that she published the first young-adult novel with a gay theme (”I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip,” by John Donovan, 1969); the first mention of menstruation in a novel for girls (”The Long Secret,” by Louise Fitzhugh, 1965); and the first portrayal of full frontal nudity in a picture book (Maurice Sendak’s ”In the Night Kitchen,” 1970) to realize that she was often at the center of the storm. (Margaret Wise Brown, the author of ”Goodnight Moon” and other classics, called her Ursula Maelstrom.) But she was usually prepared and always cared more for her authors and their books than for her own hide.
She was ferocious when trouble came, fending off attacks and offering solace and nurture to her charges when she was unable to protect them. When ”I’ll Get There” was approaching publication, she wrote letters marshaling favorable blurbs from such authorities as Dr. Frances Ilg of the Gesell Institute of Child Development at Yale. When the inevitable attacks came, she held Donovan’s hand, commiserating with him over bad reviews, including one in this publication: ”Oh hell, the whole thing is ridiculous and I can’t pretend otherwise,” she moaned about the confused, confusing review. And she fought back, firing off an ”illiterate wail,” as she phrased it, to a pooh-bah at the New York Public Library who had pounced on the ”realism” in Donovan’s book.
When troubles of a deeper sort — depression, writer’s block, money worries — struck, she was there, shoring up egos, prodding when necessary, securing advances. A long letter to Maurice Sendak, who, at 33, had written her in despair, is a model of selfless concern for a young man suffering doubt. She argues vehemently on behalf of his talent, cautioning him against comparing himself negatively with great writers. ”You may not be Tolstoy,” she reasons, ”but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either.”
She took remarkable personal risks, offering her affection and enthusiasm in almost reckless ways. Her letters abound with professions of love, which were occasionally rejected but never diminished. Her contacts with her ”geniuses,” as she often called them, continued even after she retired, as she did twice. (She was a senior vice president of Harper & Row until 1973, when she took ”early retirement” to become editor of Ursula Nordstrom Books, her own imprint within the department. In 1980 she gave up that title as well.)
In retirement, Nordstrom considered assembling her letters, but as she once warned another tardy writer, ”The grave’s a fine and quiet place but none I think do finish their books from there.” She died in 1988 of ovarian cancer, her project unfinished. Leonard S. Marcus, the author of a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, has done the job for her — choosing, editing and annotating in a way that conveys her devotion to her friends and colleagues.
Kind and generous as she may have been, what she got paid for, of course, was to improve books. And in this respect her real genius glows from these letters. For an example of a brilliant editor at work, look no farther than her lengthy December 1957 letter to Syd Hoff, the New Yorker cartoonist and illustrator. Hoff had just submitted his first children’s book, the now-classic ”Danny and the Dinosaur” (1958). Working from a dummy of 64 pages, Nordstrom leads her new author sentence by sentence, complimenting, criticizing, suggesting, prodding, teaching. ”Pages 18 and 19 seem very resistible to me, Syd. The rest of the story is so reasonable, given the fact that a dinosaur came to life, but this stuff about pushing the cloud away with his nose doesn’t quite come off, I’m afraid. The same for the wet cement episode on page 19.” And again: ”I doubt that the children would have done anything so consciously adorable as ‘join hands and form a ring.’ Wouldn’t they just jump up and down and shout ‘Hurray hurray for the dinosaur’?” God was in the details for Nordstrom, and she was merciless in pursuit of perfection.
Relentless too, in pursuit of new talent. Aspiring writers and artists reading these letters will mourn the passing of a woman so hungry for genius that she insisted on seeing any author or illustrator who found his way to her office. She had a remarkable ability to spot the real thing. In a March 1960 letter to Russell Hoban, the author of the Frances books for young readers, she parodies herself, telling of a visit to a gallery exhibit of drawings: ”I was terribly tired that day and sort of depressed, but I pushed myself way up on Madison Avenue to try to find someone NEW who can draw. . . . Across the room I saw the most magnificent black and white drawings; my fatigue vanished, a large smile covered my large face, I catapulted my large self across the room. Henri Matisse. I was so mad, because everyone knows he is tied up with Simon & Schuster.”