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

Dear Genius by Ursula Nordstrom
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Oct 16, 11

bookshelves: books-about-books, history, borrowed
Read in October, 2011

I'm not usually a big fan of collections of letters, but living with Ursula Nordstrom and her many close, occasionally combative, frank and loving letters to the writers and illustrators she worked with for 30 odd years the past two weeks has been an utter delight.

Nordstrom's voice is quite unique: eloquent, warm, frisky. After a couple of hectic, focused months at work, having this voice inside my head - a voice that's miles away from workaday client correspondence - has broken open the linguistic straitjacket I felt like I was falling into.

This collection does three things. Firstly, it provides insight into the life of a professional American woman in the mid 20th century, who worked in a female-dominated section of a male-dominated industry and refused to to be promoted away from it:

March 4, 1953
Did I ever tell .. I was taken out to luncheon and offered, with great ceremony, the opportunity to be an editor in the adult department? ... I almost pushed the luncheon table into the lap of the pompous gentleman opposite me and then explained kindly that publishing children's books was what I did, that 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.


Secondly, it tells the story of American children's publishing, which began to flourish as public libraries set up children's sections, and children's librarian went looking for books to fill their shelves. It's not just the inside details of marketing and print plates - it's the story of changing attitudes. Nordstrom - a dedicated liberal and a quietly gay woman - published black writers, and the first YA books to mention a girl having her first period and a teenage boy having a homosexual experience.

And finally, it tells the story of many long and short professional and emotional relationships, spiced with regret, hope, love, laughter, despair and frustration. Her correspondence with E. B. White was one of the more formal and carefully worded, but she obviously respected him and his writing deeply. Her letters to White about illustrations for 'Stuart Little' and 'Charlotte's Web' - are particularly entrancing for a big fan like me. She auditioned a number of artists, but settled on Garth Williams:

You will see that in the sample drawings for Stuart Little Mr. Williams did one picture in different techniques. We like the more detailed technique, don’t you? He was careful about lots of small but important details. For instance, in the picture of the doctor examining Stuart, Stuart is standing up. Mr. Williams had him lying down in the first sketch but changed it because he was afraid he might look like a little dead mouse if he were lying down. (That is probably a silly detail to pass on to you, but it was somehow encouraging to us.)



On #1 Garth has changed the position of the door. On #2 he re-did it so that Fern has hair more consistent with the other drawings. On #3 he re-drew it so Mrs. Arable looked less like a young girl, more like herself in other drawings. (On #3, if you agree, Mrs. Arable looks a bit whiskery-y and we can have a couple of the little lines taken out. I may be imagining it through.)


Some people tried her patience further: here she is to Hilary Knight, the illustrator of the 'Eloise' books:

Dear Hilary

I hesitate to worry you, but I thought I should tell you that some enemy of yours is writing me very angry letters, and signing your name to them.
Have a good week,

Love,

Ursula.


Watching her manage writers and illustrator who were blocked, recalcitrant, pissed off or down in the dump is an extraordinary lesson in communication. As the editor of the letters notes:

The marginal note that everyone who worked with her remembers - "N.G.E.F.Y", or Not Good Enough For You - implied, deftly enough, that if a word or passage or even an entire manuscript did not pass muster, it was not because the author was a failure but because the piece of work in question had, in that particular instance, somehow failed to rise to his or her own high and praiseworthy standard.


And when things turned out well, no one could do genuine effusion like Nordstrom. To Maurice Sendak, as 'Where the Wild Things Are' was just about to be released:

Maurice, before I sent the paste-up I went through it, rereading the words, and looking at the pictures again. It is MOST MAGNIFICENT, and we're so proud to have it on our list. When you were much younger, and had only done a couple of books, I remember I used to write you letters when the books were finished, and thank you for "another beautiful" job - or some such dopiness. Now you're rich and famous and need no words of wonder from me. But I must send them, anyhow, when I look through 'Where the Wild Things Are', I think it is utterly magnificent, and the words are beautiful and meaningful, and it does just what you wanted to do. And you did just what you wanted to do.

I've felt sort of down in the dumps about picture books lately (and those who write and illustrate and buy and review them too, to be frank!). But this bright, beautiful Monday your beautiful book is exhilarating, and it reminds me that I love creative people and love to publish books for creative children.


Highly recommended if you need to spend some time with a distinctive voice, or are interested in the history of children's book publishing.

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