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Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

4.40  ·  Rating details ·  602 ratings  ·  124 reviews
She trusted her immense intuition and generous heart--and published the most. Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was arguably the single most creative force for innovation in children's book publishing in the United States during the twentieth century. Considered an editor of maverick temperament and taste, her ...more
Paperback, 406 pages
Published March 31st 2000 by HarperCollins (first published April 1st 1998)
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Average rating 4.40  · 
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May 05, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone who's ever read and enjoyed a children's book.
Shelves: history, literature
This is possibly the best book ever. Ursula Nordstrom was the head editor at Harpers for many decades, and this is a collection of her professional letters to the authors and illustrators we all love. Her letters themselves are fantastic, witty and intelligent and so very interesting. The topics managed to be even better - I loved seeing her editing in action, and seeing how she shaped all those books into their final versions. Not to mention getting to "know" all of the authors and illustrators ...more
Dec 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing
If I were stranded on a desert island with only five books, this would be one of them for sure. Not only was Ursula a daring, ground-breaking editor who revolutionized children's books, but she was also a brilliant communicator. If she was writing about the color of orange juice, she'd still be a hoot.

But lucky for us she wasn't writing about citrus fruit—she was writing about kids books, and publishing and personalities. Sometimes we even see her frustrations with politics and culture (a great
Barb Middleton
Oct 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult
For some reason, I didn't reign in my compulsive eating of enticing Christmas desserts this year. The cookie tray jump starts my pistons for shoveling sugar from hand-to-mouth in a blur. You'd think my pistons would have slowed down now that I'm old, but NOOOOOOOO. Now because of my lack of self-control, I'm an irritable, hamster-type pedal-pusher on an elliptical machine, who is horribly sick of salads and can't eat anything because she gained 10 freaking pounds in two weeks! I have since lost ...more
Ursula Nordstrom (not of Nordstrom department store fame); held the position of children’s editor at Harper’s publishing house for over three decades. Her legacy includes having worked with some of the most beloved children’s authors and illustrators including Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, and Shel Silverstein; among a plethora of others. Nordstrom kept on-going streams of communication with these authors/artists in the forms of typewritten letters which were archived and rem ...more
Courtney Johnston
Dec 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
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 linguis
Aug 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: picture-books
One of the more inspiring books I have ever read - I started out just wanting to see how this woman [the editor of most of my favorite children's books of 1950-1980:] talked to her authors and illustrators - I made mental notes - oh see she sounds cross, but she is just being supportive and constructive, etc.
But the more I read it, the more Ursula's own personality was fleshed out - these letters do really give a sense of what a force she must have been - she doesn't give too many personal detai
Delightful, although at times disjointed. My two favorite parts were where Ursula is describing how she had to explain to industry professionals that The First Four Years cannot be edited to be made more cheerful as that would not be faithful to what LIW wrote (although as I said to my mother the other night, that may well be what Rose did) and the letter Ursula wrote to Russell Hoban when he is working on Bedtime for Frances (then titled Who's Afraid?) ...more
Jun 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I'm not really finished but five stars it is and I'll pick away at this all summer. Library books are coming in fast and furious and I have to get started on them.
Catherine Read
Jun 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Rachel by: Julia McGill, my YWW writing teacher
Shelves: 11th-grade
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
Mar 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
How I enjoyed this book! All it is is letters written by one of the most notable children's book editors ever, Ursula Nordstrom, who worked for Harper. The letters go from 1937 until 1982. This really was a golden age for children's literature, and it was so fun to see letters and production details about some of my favorite books. Laura Ingalls Wilder, E B White, Maurice Sendak, Meindert DeJong, Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss, Garth Williams, and many others are all there.

I loved reading acc
Feb 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing
If you love children's books, this is the book for you. Ursula Nordstrom was the head of the Harper's "Boys and Girls' Department" from 1940 to 1973 and is credited with being one of the most creative forces in children's books. She had an uncanny ability to recognize talent and potential in writers and illustrators. She worked with people such as Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, Garth Williams, John Steptoe, Mary Stolz, and on and on. She was a magnificent ment ...more
Claire Grasse
Jun 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Ursula Nordstrom is wonderful: witty, self-deprecating, kind (mostly). Think of a children's book author or illustrator that you've read, and this former children's editor with Harper & Row probably mentored them: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maurice Sendak, EB White, Garth Williams, H.A. and Margret Rey, Margaret Wise Brown... If you grew up on these peoples' books (and pity you if you didn't) you'll love this behind-the-scenes peek at how their books were created. Ursula Nordstrom was an open-minded ...more
Sophie Brookover
It's impossible to overstate the significance of this book, and the work of Ursula Nordstrom, in my life as a reader & librarian. ...more
Kris Dersch
This book is just plain delicious.
If you were touched by a children's book of the 20th's worth the read just for the behind-the-scenes on those. "Harriet the Spy," "Where the Wild Things Are," "Bedtime for Frances," "The Giving Tree," "Freaky Friday,"...the list of books and their creators discussed in this compendium just goes on and on and on. If it were just that, it would be well worth the read for any book lover.
What makes it delightful, though, is that it goes beyond th
Sarah Nelson
Mar 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
So interesting and inspiring to read the letters of legendary Harper children's book editor, Ursula Nordstrom. She edited many kidlit classics and worked with authors and illustrators like E.B. White, Ruth Krauss, Maurice Sendak, Charlotte Zolotow, and Shel Silverstein . . . She was part coach, part cheerleader, and part (sometimes) tough school marm. I learned quite a lot of industry history, was introduced to some new (old) authors, and enjoyed getting an insider's perspective. Though children ...more
Apr 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: about-books, 2016
Fascinating read for those of us wanting a peek behind-the-scenes in children's literature and publishing.

Who better than the influential Ursula Nordstrom herself to reveal a bit of historic reality about the writers, illustrators, editors, and publishers who gifted the world with many twentieth century American children's classics: chapter books like Charlotte's Web and Harriet the Spy, I Can Read Books like the Little Bear series, and picture books like Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Mo
Mar 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Susann by: Melissa and Laurie
Laurie was so right; I loved this book. Ursula Nordstrom was the editor for Harper's children's books for decades, working with Margaret Wise Brown, EB White, Maurice Sendak, Louise Fitzhugh and a bazillion others. She shaped 20th century kidlit and happened to be an excellent letter writer to boot. It was fascinating to watch how she worked with all those writers and illustrators. I had never really thought about illustrator-editor conversations and I was especially interested in her Garth Will ...more
Jun 15, 2010 rated it it was ok
What I liked about this collection of letters is the way UN's wry wit was always in evidence. It was fun to read some of the letters to authors I know and love.

What I didn't like was the lack of context, the disconnected nature of only getting one side of the conversation.

What drove me crazy is maybe only something I don't understand, perhaps some scholarly convention- but I found it maddening that the editor assigned "short" names to some of the authors as if he would be referring to them by
Aug 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-on-writing
This book should be on the "to read" list of anyone who loves children's books. Ursula Nordstrom edited Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder (nominally, apparently she never changed a word of her manuscripts), Margaret and H.A. Rey, Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss, Ezra Jack Keats...need I go on? Her correspondence is warm, witty, and passionate. She was a woman ascending the ladder of publishing in a time when that was uncommon rare. ...more
I am definitely not the ideal reader for this book. I know close to nothing about children's literature, the subject of this book. Of the many books discussed here, I believe that I have read no more than half a dozen or so. I certainly had books as a child, but I don't believe that the books Ursula Nordstrom edited were among them. And Nordstrom edited many of the most highly regarded books for children and adolescents published from 1940 through the early 1970s. Authors and artists with whom s ...more
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Ursula Nordstrom was the director of Harper’s children’s books division from 1940 to 1973. Her creative vision, along with her encouragement and support of children’s writers and illustrators helped generate classics such as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are and the Little House on the Prairie series. A gifted editor, she was known in the publishing business for both her sagacity and her sense of humor. When she was asked what qualified her, a noncollege g ...more
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Ursula Nordstrom was the director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973 and lived in New York City for all of that time. I like to think that at some point, Ms. Nordstrom and Ms.[Helene]Hanff were at the same NYC party or social event and spent a few minutes together bonding over their favorite writers and eateries. They make some smart remarks and before they know it, the room has fallen silent and their conversation takes center stage and laughter follows each of ...more
Sue Hodara
Feb 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Children's Book Authors
Ursula Nordstrom was a singular voice in Children's Publishing as an editor and champion of quality books for children, but even more so for the authors of those books. The best proof of this was on page 285 in a letter to George Woods, commenting with disgust on what nowadays is commonplace. Ms. Nordstrom writes:

"Do you know that along with their big review space, and their big cocktail parties, and their big fat luncheons with literary agents, editors of adult books refer to something called
A.V. Dalcourt
Purchased this book based on the word of a popular creative podcast to help inspire writers.
I was looking for insight in the communications between the creative and writer to help grow the writer's skill and craft. What I got was some superficially delightful letters of fluff that danced around the creative work as those the quality of the work was somehow secondary to the writer's ego.

The name drops were nice to give context to the letters and added a sort of historical nostalgia, especially i
Mar 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Garth Williams, Maurice Sendak, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Wise Brown, EB White, Charlotte Zolotow, John Steptoe, L Fitzhugh, Shel Silverstein, Ruth Krauss, the Heys, Crockett Johnson, Mary Stoltz, the Hobins, M DeJong, Hilary Knight, and SO MANY OTHERS. These are just a few in the kidlit pantheon that Ursula Nordstrom helped, harassed, and huddled with during her decades with Harper. This compilation of her letters is a landslide of insight to her successes (a 'few that got away' scenarios, ...more
This was a fun book that took me a number of months to get through. Kind of a Behind the Music of foundational books in the children’s lit canon this told the story of Ursula Nordstrom’s time at Harpers through letters to authors, illustrators, fans and critics. I loved Ursulas voice and she is exactly the type of woman who is a Boss and who I look up to for their candour and good heart.

This book made me truly appreciate the art and craft of editing- I don’t think I really understood what edito
Arik Hardin
Dec 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was an excellent, fascinating, and enlightening read, and if you're at all interested in publishing or in children's books in general, you have to read this book. Ursula Nordstrom was a phenomenal editor who worked with and perfected the stories of authors like Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), Shel Silverstein, E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Loise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy), and so many others. Her work has forever impacted the world of children's publishing and publishing as ...more
Christy Whitsell
Apr 03, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2021-my-reads
What a delightful book! Ursula’s writing voice is hilarious, and I loved having an inside look at how children’s publishing works. She worked with so many big names—Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maurice Sendak, EB White, Garth Williams, and Margaret Wise Brown.

I found it interesting to read her responses to critical reviews on books she promoted that pushed the envelope as to what was acceptable in children’s literature. Although I found myself more in line with the detractors of the books than with he
Oct 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lgbtq, 2020-read
Admittedly an esoteric collection of letters, but Ursula Nordstrom shepherded so many great writers to the shelves: Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy), E.B. White (Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little), Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon), Mary Rodgers (Freaky Friday), Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon), Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree), Mary Stolz, and so many more. I read this slowly over many months, and it is fantastic insight into the cre ...more
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Ursula Nordstrom is primarily known as one of the twentieth century's great editors --- as many have remarked, "The Maxwell Perkins of children's literature." Yet besides being an editor, she was also the author of two remarkable novels, one published, The Secret Language (1972), and the second --- now lost forever --- unpublished.

She was publisher and editor in chief of juvenile books at Harper

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