Written by Renee Kimball
Sometimes, when you are researching, you stumble across an article that intrigues you, and if you are like me, you stash it away for another time.
The article that became the start of this post was written by Pamela Paul for the New York Times Sunday Book Review in 2011, and titled The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules, For me, at least, Paul’s article proved to be well worth keeping.
Paul points out three notable children’s authors who broke the rules of children’s literature: Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are’; Shel Silverstein poet and story teller Where the Sidewalk Ends; and before Sendak and Silverstein, Theodore Geisel (magical Dr. Seuss) The Cat In the Hat and others too numerous to list. These authors wrote outside the restriction that children’s literature must contain a moral lesson encouraging children to be perfect little adults in the making. These authors wrote in children’s language, portraying children’s unruly behavior, and children loved them – the literary community was not as welcoming.
Almost as an aside, and close to the article’s end, Paul commented: “Not surprisingly, Silverstein and Sendak shared the same longtime editor, Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, a woman who once declared it her mission to publish “good books for bad children.”
Which begged the question: Who was Ursula Nordstrom?
Ursula Nordstrom was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1910. She was the only child of well-known vaudevillians who were some of the beautiful people of New York society.
When Nordstrom was seven, her parents divorced, and she was sent to boarding school—it proved to be a frightening and lonely experience. Growing up, Nordstrom believed that she was nothing but an “ugly duckling born of beautiful swans.” (Marcus).
After high school, Nordstrom was eligible to attend Bryn Mawr the elite College for Women in Pennsylvania, but her parents enrolled Ursula in business school, The Scudder School for Girls in New York. After Scudder, in 1936, Nordstrom was hired as a clerk in the textbook department of Harper & Brothers (Publisher). Harper & Brothers became her home for over 35 years.
Rapidly promoted, she became an assistant in the Boys & Girls section, where, again promoted in 1940, she became editor-in-chief. Nordstrom continued being professionally first in her career. In 1954 she was the first “woman elected to the Board of Directors of Harper & Brothers (Harper & Roe, HarperCollins Publishers), and in 1960 the first woman vice-president of Harper & Brothers (Marcus). In 1960, she also wrote a young-adult novel, The Secret Language, published by Harper & Brothers. The novel, her only one, was a telling reference to her lonely years in boarding school. She remained Editor of the same department until 1978.
Before Nordstrom, children’s literature was simply a way to instruct good behavior –it was resolute and dull — both didactic and pedantic and boring. Children’s books spoke of perfect children – clean, polite and quiet children. While a few writers and publishers had stepped out of this tried and true formula, Nordstrom wanted more for children’s literature and she wasn’t afraid to fight for change.
She was also realist and wanted children’s literature to be about “real” children — silly talking, constantly moving, and wonky children – who got dirty and into trouble, real children. When questioned by long-term educational experts to reveal what she knew about children’s literature, she replied: “Well, I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.” (Marcus).
As Editor, Nordstrom made it “. . . her mission to publish “good books for bad children,” and changed the trajectory of children’s literature forever–
Lucky for children, for children’s literature, and lucky for us.
During her long tenure at Harper & Roe, Nordstrom edited, promoted, and coddled many famous children and young adult authors. Their work formed the bedrock of children’s literature and are still read and loved today: “. . .E. B. White’s Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte’s Web (1952), Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur (1958), Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, (1963), Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret, Karla Kuskin’s Roar and More (1956), and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974). (Wikipedia, Paul, Sinkler).
After taking retirement in 1978, she began her own editing company within the same Harper department titled Ursula Nordstrom Books. In 1980 she became a consultant and that same year was the first woman to win the Curtis Benjamin Award for “innovation and creativity in publishing” (Marcus).
After a long struggle with cancer in 1988, Nordstrom passed away.
Leonard S. Marcus lovingly compiled Nordstrom’s business correspondence and published Dear Genius The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, in 1998. The collection was something that Nordstrom wanted to do but never had the opportunity.
Marcus accomplished the task on her behalf, and we are grateful he did. The Nordstrom letters speak for themselves. Nordstrom referred to her authors as “her geniuses” and treated them as such. The collection forms a history, an eye-opening view of Nordstrom’s humor, friendships, and reactions to social change throughout her long tenure with Harper & Brothers. It also reveals the personalities of her beloved authors, their foibles, and personalities.
The publishing world has changed drastically from the one Nordstrom knew. In the end, it was the perfect setting for her life’s desire which she achieved many times over.
Nordstrom had the gift of recognition – the recognition of undiscovered genius. Those who have this skill also know the gifted may only need a small push, some understanding, kindness, confidence, and promotion to become the best at whatever they were meant to be.
Nordstrom recognized genius, encouraged it, fought for it, and because of her desire to “write good books for bad children,” everyone’s – children’s and adult’s alike– lives are much richer.
Paul, Pamela. New York Times Sunday Book Review titled The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules, September 16, 2011 by Pamela Paul. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/books/review/the-childrens-authors-who-broke-the-rules.html
Marcus, Leonard S. DEAR GENIUS: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. (1998). Collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. HarperCollins Publishers, New York.
Cinkler, Rebecca Pepper. New York Times : Books on the Web. Confessions of a Former Child. (1998) March 22, 1998. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/22/reviews/980322.22sinklet.html?_r=2
Category:Authors edited by Ursula Nordstrom. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_Nordstrom
Referenced photos of children’s books via Amazon. No financial gain from the use of these photos. All books may be purchased through Amazon. com.
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.