Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

I think some version of this post will be in issue #2 of my zine, The Hundred Most Influential Writers in My Life to Date, As Best I Can Remember and Mostly Not Including Zines. Ursula Nordstrom isn’t on my list of my hundred most influential authors. However, she was an editor working with so many writers on my list, including (but perhaps not limited to) Russell Hoban, Maurice Sendak, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Shel Silverstein, E.B. White, and Louise Fitzhugh. Many of the books that were so important to me as a kid, and continue to be so important to me, might not exist if it wasn’t for her.

Someone mentioned The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom on the amazing children's lit listserv I'm on, and the library doesn't own it, but it seemed worth buying, so I did. And I read it in a week, with fiction going at the same time! It was captivating, and it was a book I’ll be glad to own and refer to—I’ve found that it’s good to own poetry, essays, and volumes of letters, though I’ve decided that most general fiction and non-fiction can be gotten from the library. I tend not to buy a book for myself unless I’ve already read it and I’m sure I’ll read it again, plus usually I want to loan it out.

Nordstrom was the director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls (Harper Junior Books as of 1968) from 1940 to 1973, and she worked for Harper's in the Children's Books department from 1931 on, retiring in 1973 but continuing to work as a "senior editor" until 1980, and then retiring fully.

She discovered Maurice Sendak in 1950 when he was "a self-described 'twenty-two-and-a-half'-year-old, working in the window display department of F.A.O. Schwartz" (footnote, page 41)--their meeting was arranged by the store's children's book buyer, Frances Chrystie, a long-time friend of Nordstrom’s.

The first letter in the book is Nordstrom's note to Laura Ingalls Wilder when Nordstrom was still the assistant for the editor, just having finished her first jacket copy ever, for On the Banks of Plum Creek. Later in a letter to another writer, talking about why Harper reissued all the Little House books with illustrations by Garth Williams, she mentions that when they’d done an exhibition about the Little House books, she’d asked Mrs. Wilder to send “anything she thought would be of interest. She sent us Pa’s fiddle! I stood in the middle of the department holding Pa’s fiddle and hardly able to believe it!” Included in the book of letters are many exchanges with Garth Williams, including bits about arguments she had with people at Harper's over carbon pencils, offset printing vs. letterpress, and suchlike. It’s wonderful. Williams did the illustrations not only for the Little House books as I know them, but for Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and many others. Apparently when he did the illustrations for the Little House books, he and his wife and their kids “made the long and careful trip through Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, all the Wilder country.”

Nordstrom also worked with Margaret Wise Brown on Goodnight, Moon and many other titles, and she started working with John Steptoe when he was still in high school, corresponding at times with his mother when he wouldn’t respond to her letters and phone calls. She published two young adult novels about the “black experience” by a Jesse C. Jackson in the 1940’s and 1950’s—Call Me Charley, published 1945, was “among the first novels for young readers to address the issue of racism in contemporary American society” (footnote). She also edited and published I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip., by John Donovan, which according to Leonard Marcus, the editor of the letters, “included the first reference, in a book for young adults, to the homosexual experience.” She published M.E. Kerr and many other controversial writers—I didn’t know, until I read this, just how controversial Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web and other books had been when first published. In a letter to George Woods, long-time children’s book review editor at the New York Times and as well as a children’s book writer published by Harper’s, Nordstrom talks about a review of Sounder published in the Times that questions the book’s appropriateness for children and raises questions about its treatment of violence and attitudes toward moral outrage (paraphrased from the editor’s summary of the review), and she says, “You have remarked that I have never complained to you about any review, or the lack of any review. And I don’t intend to start now. But oh is there any prettier sight in the world than the sight of someone sticking their neck OUT???” And this is why I say that these books that were so important to me as a child might not exist if not for her.

She got outraged by much hullabaloo over the naked boy in Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, responding to a letter from someone at an elementary school in this way:

I am indeed distressed to hear that in the year 1972 you burned a copy of a book. We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children! . . . Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses? . . . I think young children will always react with delight to such a book as In the Night Kitchen, and that they will react creatively and wholesomely. It is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.

A few months later, she issues a press release responding to censorship of In the Night Kitchen, specifically an item that appeared “without any editorial comment” in School Library Journal saying that a librarian in Louisiana had anticipated patrons’ discomfort with the naked little boy in the book and had “solved the problem by diapering the little boy with white tempura paint.” The writer of the news item goes on to suggest that “Other librarians may wish to do the same,” a suggestion which horrified Nordstrom—she makes an important distinction between a private individual who might do whatever he wants to a book he owns, but “it is an altogether different matter when a librarian disfigures a book purchased with public funds—thereby editing the work of the author—and then presents this distortion to the library’s patrons.”

Apparently Nordstrom also had a hand in the creation of Free to Be You and Me, the record of which was an essential part of my childhood; in a letter to Mary Rodgers, author of Freaky Friday and many other novels, she says, “The great Shel Silverstein told Marlo Thomas the great Marlo Thomas to look me up while she is in NY making a t.v. special" (sic).

Russell Hoban had initially envisioned Frances as a vole; Nordstrom wrote to him asking if Frances couldn't be something a little less mousy, and Garth Williams, who illustrated the first Frances book (the others were illustrated by Hoban's wife, Lillian) had the idea to make her a hedgehog.

Nordstrom herself had a “long-time companion,” Mary Griffith. Before reading this book, I had no idea that Margaret Wise Brown and Louise Fitzhugh were also lesbians. Maurice Sendak is gay, too, which is not mentioned in here but which I learned from a New Yorker profile of him. All of this is interesting--did Nordstrom help queer children’s lit? Which is to say, children’s literature would certainly not have been as cutting-edge without Ursula Nordstrom. How much did her sexuality shape/influence her worldview, and how much did it make her open to writers others might not have taken the time to nurture? Not that there were so many others, anyway, it seems—children’s lit developed into what it became in large part because of her contributions. I am sure she was not the only smart thoughtful editor interested in publishing, as she put it, “good books for bad children.”

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