Rachel's Reviews > Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

Dear Genius by Ursula Nordstrom
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Nov 02, 10

bookshelves: 11th-grade
Recommended to Rachel by: Julia McGill, my YWW writing teacher

Stuart Little. Charlotte's Web. The Runaway Bunny. Little House in the Big Woods. Bedtime for Frances. Where the Wild Things Are. A Kiss for Little Bear. It's Like This, Cat. Freaky Friday. Harriet the Spy.

It's hard to imagine that a single individual was involved in the publication of so many beloved childhood classics, but Ursula Nordstrom was such a woman. As director of Harper Publishing's childrens department from 1940 to 1973, she was friend and mentor to some of the most creative writers and artists of the day. This compilation of her personal correspodence, published 10 years after her death, is a fascinating excursion into the world of children's publishing through the life of one of its most brilliant and influential editors.

The first thing I noticed while reading Nordstrom's letters: she's funny. Not 21st-century, passive-agressive sarcasm funny, but real old-fashioned wit. No smileys here, but plenty of sly allusions, affectionate banter and code words (MCP is male chauvinist pig). The amount of personality she puts in her letters makes one long for the snail mail days.

The second thing: sincerity. Though sometimes self-deprecating, Nordstrom was ever sincere in her praising her author "geniuses" (hence the title Dear Genius). 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". I especially enjoyed reading her letters to John Stepdoe, the teenage author of Stevie, which strike the perfect balance between respectful encouragement and motherly scolding. Nordstrom was somewhat subversive in her conviction that children's books should be written for children, not the adults who buy them -- if the word wasn't now associated with Sarah Palin, I'd call her a maverick. She was utterly devoted to her audience and her work. One can't help but conclude that the moral and artistic education of children was in the best of hands.

In Goodreads reviews, I'm usually stingy about handing out five stars, but I really can't give this volume anything else. It amazed me, and it spoke to a part of me I haven't been in touch with for a long time. 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. And now I'm being overly sentimental, but as Ms. Nordstrom quoted on page 270:

"Every time a resolve or fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing fruit, it is worse than a chance lost; it works to hinder future emotions from taking the normal path of discharge."

- William James

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Daria (new)

Daria That is an amazing review. I don't think I have quite the love for these childrens' titles as you do (I grew up more so on the Brothers Grimm), but Nordstrom's character certainly intrigues me. She is a famous name, after all.


message 2: by Jane (new)

Jane Kelley Thanks, Rachel -- this sounds like a great book for me to read.
(I smile whenever I think of Frances!)


Rachel Jane, please read it! And tell me if the editing process nowadays is anything like it was then.


Rachel Dar -- I actually never heard of Nordstrom until I read this. She is a fascinating character though. It makes you want to start using a typewriter. And the postal service.


message 5: by Jane (new)

Jane Kelley Rachel wrote: "Jane, please read it! And tell me if the editing process nowadays is anything like it was then."

It's waiting for me at the library!


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