Dear Genius – The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

(June 2019) It took so long to finish this book, but I love every minute I spent with it. It was too heavy to lug around in my travels, so it was my “at home” book for months.

These letters written by the iconic children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom are so rich in every conceivable way. They are written to the many writers she worked with in a career with Harper & Row that spanned the 1930s to the end of the 1970s. The footnotes are in a class by themselves and they are on every page. I was never at a loss for context.

Ursula Nordstrom was an extraordinary person. You get that from the tone and content of her letters. She was smart, witty, encouraging and loving. Juvenile books were not even considered “literature” back in the day. Many writers wanted to have nothing to do with it. She nurtured and developed so many wonderful writers and illustrators in her career: Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, Maurice Sendack, Ruth Krauss, Russell & Lillian Hoban, Syd Hoff, Crockett Johnson, Louse Fitzhugh, Crosby Bonsall, Else Homelund Minarik, Arnold & Anita Lobel, Jesse Jackson, John Steptoe, Mary Stoltz, Hilary Knight, and Meindert DeJong. She launched the I CAN READ series of books. These book titles are the ones I grew up with and many are still classics of children’s literature – Where the Wild Things Are, Runaway Bunny, Charlotte’s Web, Little Bear, Harriet the Spy, Freaky Friday and Danny and the Dinosaur.

Nordstrom was not college educated. She took a job with Harper & Brothers College Textbook department in 1931. In 1936, she became assistant to Louise Raymond, editor of the small department of Books for Boys & Girls, and in 1940 took over the chief editor position of the growing Juvenile Literature Department, staying at the helm until her retirement from full time employment in 1973.

Through all those years she was supported by her longtime partner Mary Griffith. In her letters she refers to Mary, the homes and apartments they purchased and sold, and the parties they hosted at their home.

I have markers throughout this book. I learned so much about the authors and books I have loved so much in my life. And I learned so much about writers I am not familiar with but who deserve all the accolades that were heaped upon them by their loving editor.

The book is worth every minute spent in its 400 pages. Leonard S. Marcus does a masterful job in editing and compiling her letters and providing rich additional resources and context for their content. Ursula Nordstrom made a profound impact on the children’s literature that continues to influence generations of children.

She was fond of this quote from Martha Graham which she shared with the writers with whom she worked:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

This quote was purportedly found in the wallet of Louise Fitzhugh when she died suddenly of an aneurysm at the age of 46. The author, best known for Harriet the Spy made history with her book The Long Secret (published in 1965) by addressing menstruation for the first time ever in juvenile literature. From a Nordstrom letter in 1981:

I do remember when I read the ms. [manuscript] and came to the page where the onset of Beth Ellen’s first menstrual period occurred, and it was written so beautifully, to such perfection, I scrawled in the margin, “THANK YOU, LOUISE FITZHUGH!” It is incredible that Louise’s Long Secret contained the first mention in junior books of this tremendous event in a girl’s life.”

Nordstrom would have to defend that decision to include Beth Ellen’s first period in children’s literature for many years to come.

There are so many revealing moments in these letters for those who love books. The wit and wisdom of Ursula Nordstrom made an impact. Her story is one not to missed by the truly passionate bibliophile.

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