Jan

28

In 1972, when a school librarian burned a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Night Kitchen in an act of micro-censorship against the book’s depiction of a fictional little boy in the nude, Sendak’s editor, the great Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910 - October 11, 1988), sent the librarian a personal note:

“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?”

This anecdote, cited in Leonard Marcus’s Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, captures the essence of Nordstrom’s character – brilliant and wise and relentlessly respectful of the inner lives of children – and the kind of zest with which she ushered in the golden age of mid-century children’s literature in her three decades heading Harper & Row’s juvenile books division. Besides nurturing and cultivating Sendak from a young, insecure artist into a cultural icon, Nordstrom was also the force behind such timeless classics as E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Sendak’s iconic Where the Wild Things Are (which would’ve been titled Where the Wild Horses Are had it not been for Nordstrom’s gentle insistence that Sendak abandon his rather poor drawings of horses and imagine instead his own whimsical creatures).

At Shel Silverstein’s request, Nordstrom, herself a gay woman, helped Marlo Thomas bring to life her iconic 1972 equality anthem Free to Be…You and Me.

When Harpers management took her to lunch and ceremoniously offered to “promote” her into the adult department after her success at children’s publishing, she nearly flipped the table, then composed herself and kindly explained that “she couldn’t possibly be interested in books for dead dull finished adults.”

In the original manuscript of The Long Secret, which Nordstrom edited, she scribbled in the margins next to the very first mention of menstruation in a children’s book, “Thank you, Louise Fitzhugh!”

In 1960, she became the first female vice president at Harper’s.

Shaken by the news of her death in 1988, Sendak told The New York Times: “With her incomparable editorial genius, Ursula Nordstrom transformed the American children’s book into a genuine art form.”

With her singular blend of bravery and tenderness, Nordstrom was the antithesis of the “mediocre ladies in influential positions,“ as she once described the ranks of unimaginative management running the industry, and pushed persistently past the stagnant comfort zones of children’s literature, challenging young readers — and the people they would become — to soar beyond the boundaries of their own intellect and imagination.

126 notes

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    nonspatial
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    (illustration by Lisa Congdon) (also via Brain Pickings’ What Is Creativity?)
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    Long live Ursula Nordstrom!
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