The librarian at the public library in the Bronx used to light a candle before reading aloud to the children gathered before her, highlighted her reverence for time spent reading together. As a classroom teacher and a reading specialist, I wasn’t able to light candles before I read to my students but I carried that reverence inside me. As any parent knows, there is magic in reading a book aloud to a child.
As I read, Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marks), I was stunned that one editor was responsible for nurturing so many incredible books and authors: The Carrot Seed, Harold and the Purple Crayon, May I Bring a Friend, Millions of Cats, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Chicken Soup with Rice, Danny and the Dinosaur, Where the Wild Things Are, A Baby Sister for Frances, Ben’s Trumpet, The Important Book, The Snowy Day, Goodnight, Moon, Runaway Bunny, Stevie (the author later wrote Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters), Moon Jumpers, A Hole is to Dig, Poky Little Puppy, Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web, William’s Doll, Stuart Little…the list could go on and on. As the famed editor and director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, Ursula Nordstrom changed the face of children’s literature with her vision.
It was pure joy to read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters as she joked with, consoled, inspired, badgered, encouraged but, most of all, respected her authors and illustrators. Read this book if you love children’s books or if you are a writer or illustrator.
Here are 7 things I learned from Ursula Nordstrom:
- Respect Your Audience
“I am a former child and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”
Not only did Ursula Nordstrom deeply respect the authors, she respected the children for whom the books were being created. In letter after letter, Nordstrom holds the bar high for her writers. She recognized that children would welcome books that dealt with the emotions and situations reflected in their own lives, whether it was a first period, a hole in the ground or more mature situations. She believed that children responded best to strong characters, funny names and lots of action.
- Believe You Can Create Great Art
When Maurice Sendak lacked confidence or Ruth Knauss was misunderstood by
adults, Nordstom emphasized the singularity of artistic vision. To read her
letters is to feel her bedrock belief in her authors and illustrator. She only asks,
sometimes with great humor, that they do the work and do it to the high standards
that she believed that they had set for themselves.
- Dwell in Uncertainty when Giving Feedback to Others
When turning down a manuscript, Nordstrom always maintained a sense of humility which was evidenced by her sharing her uncertainty about the accuracy of her judgement when turning someone down.
- Navigate Negative Feedback
There were a few times when an artist (who disagreed with Ursula Nordstrom’s feedback) left her publishing house. As a reader, I was screaming in my head, “Don’t go! Listen to Ursula!.” Of course, it is their write to publish with whomever they wish but it probably is a good rule of thumb to develop some ability to navigate negative feedback, such as by not reacting in the moment and giving yourself plenty time to contemplate the feedback dispassionately. Also, what’s the harm of creating a draft with the changes and then deciding which one works?
Write. Write. Write. Many of her letters are just Ursula Nordstrom begging authors to
write and/or turn in manuscripts. She beseeches her authors to do the work to the
exclusion of anyone and everything else, with great humor throughout.
- Be of Good Cheer
Through crushing disappointments and losses, Nordstrom was able to keep her equanimity and sense of humor. To see her generous spirit unfold through these letters was a great gift.
- Life is Short
Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon) and Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy) are two authors that died too young. Just a reminder that our time here is not unlimited.
I loved this book so much that I just hated when it was over. I have so many questions and wish that Ursula Nordstrom was still among us but, lucky for all of us, her legend lives on.