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The Genius of Ursula Nordstrom
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time traveling this month--to book festivals as Author Alex, to librarian and educator conferences as Work Alex, and everywhere in between. This, as usual, involved a lot of plane and train journeys, most of them spent staring out of windows, listening to music, thinking about the stories I’m brainstorming and what I wanted to post about this month. Since we’re so close to the end of the year, and this is the time we all seem to start looking inward and reflecting on our lives, careers, families, and what-have-you, I knew I wanted to step away from the Ask Alex series again and share something deeply meaningful to me. Inspiration struck during the touching tributes that ran through the ALAN program over the past two days. All of these people were torchbearers of sorts; they’d changed or enriched our industry in incredibly meaningful ways. So today, I wanted to take the time to reflect on one of my personal heroes, someone I’ve grown to admire at a near-worshipful level: Ursula Nordstorm.
On my very first day of work at my first job, I was handed a copy of the book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, collected and edited by Leonard Marcus. Until that moment, I had never heard of Ursula. I had no context for who she was or why someone had cared enough to compile almost 400 pages of letters. If you’re in the same boat, let me start off by explaining that Ursula was a publisher and editor at Harper & Row (a company that existed from 1962-1990, when NewsCorp merged it with William Collins & Sons, forming what we now know today as HarperCollins). She served as director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, after joining the company as an editorial assistant in 1936. Let me expand on that by adding that, in that period of time, she changed the face of children’s literature. That’s not me being hyperbolic. Her name is still held up with reverence in the industry, her authors beloved and perpetual bestsellers. The simplest way to begin to explain her legacy is to cite her fearlessness and fierce devotion to not kowtowing to the refined, overly sentimental (AKA excessively moralizing) standard that was kid lit back in the early 20th century. She discovered and labored over many favorites, including: The Runaway Bunny, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, Harriet the Spy, Julie of the Wolves, Freaky Friday, and The Giving Tree. Here are words I’ve seen used to describe her: high-strung, witty, nurturing, self-doubting, maverick, ferocious, affectionate, perfectionist, enthusiastic, champion, genius. Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon and so many other classics, called her Ursula Maelstrom for her seeming inability to shy away from “trouble.” It’s very easy to point to the talent she played a role in discovering and leave it at that, but to really understand her importance and the way she shaped the industry, you have to understand her devotion to publishing books that were reflective of a child or teen’s actual experience—no matter how messy or naughty.
Lest you think Max of Where the Wild Things Are is the exemplar of all of this, Ursula Nordstorm also nurtured the neglected fringes. She published the first YA novel with LGBT themes (I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip by John Donovan in 1969), the first ever mention of menstruation in a novel for girls (The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh in 1965), and, yes! The first ever portrayal of full-frontal nudity in a picture book (In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak in 1970). She struggled to find authentic voices that rose above the standard, safe fare. Regarding the depressing state of teen novels in the 1960s, she wrote:
There are so many fantastic “legends” surrounding her, my favorite being that she had an open door policy to new talent—literally. No artist or writer that wanted to present their work, regardless of whether or not they had an actual appointment, was to be turned away. When she caught the phone ringing for too long, she’d call out, “Answer that! That could be the next Mark Twain.” Her “confused table” in her office, where she kept manuscripts she needed more time to ponder. Her (in)famous note she’d leave in the margins to her authors—“N.G.E.F.Y.” (Not Good Enough For You), which is absolute magic in its subtle way of underscoring a critique with unwavering faith in their talent. There seems to be a kind of duality to her character--she was a sharp business woman with incredible innate taste, but regardless of her success and her tenacity, she still was at the mercy of the times and gender roles of that era. As Leonard Marcus explains in Dear Genius, “The chief legacy of the Great Depression for Ursula Nordstrom was that it had made a supremely self-sufficient working woman of her while denying her the chance to attend college. Nordstrom may have mentored a generation of editors, but she never overcame her feelings of inferiority at having failed to complete her own education.” It’s a little bit of a misconception to think that the abundance of women working on the children’s side of the industry is any new development—women had taken these positions since the 1920s, despite lower pay than their male counterparts in trade, educational, and religious publishing. They were constantly patronized for their choice of career, but because working on the children's side was seen somehow less desirable (read: very few men wanted these positions), these same women were granted more freedom, both to publish to their tastes and to advance their careers in ways denied to them when trying to navigate that "prestigious" adult field. To give you a real sense of how frustrating and humiliating the whole thing could be: Ursula Nordstrom was elected to Harper’s board of directors in 1955 (the only woman at the time to do so), and was named its first woman vice president in 1960. Amazing, right? Leonard Marcus, however, relates a horrifying/hilarious story of a colleague asking her—the only woman present at a board meeting—to make the coffee. Her stiff response? She didn’t know how. Ultimately, it's not the list she cultivated that I admire, but her recognition that children's literature could be so much more than it was--and her willingness to be the one to shift the gears of a vehicle she didn't exactly start off knowing how to drive. These characters of her beloved books were as imperfect as she was, and perhaps that's what makes her--and them--so charming. Her legacy is everywhere. I know I've already rambled on enough (conference brain!), but I just want to leave you with this one last bit of a letter. I think it encapsulates so much of what she was about as an editor.
To our readers based in the U.S., we hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving tomorrow! In the meantime, sound off in the comments with your publishing heroes.