Dear Genius

Katherine Wolff reviews 'Dear Genius' by Ursula Nordstrom.

By Katherine Wolff
Published April 13, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Sentimentality is a failure of feeling," wrote Wallace Stevens. Legendary children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom would have agreed. Her engrossing correspondence reveals a long struggle to free kids' lit from the cloying baby talk that characterized the genre when she was a child. Although Nordstrom -- who worked at Harper & Row from 1931 to 1979 -- rejected stories that glorified a sterile nuclear family, she would never have endorsed facile it-takes-a-village multiculturalism either. Nordstrom threw herself into a messy, meta-political world of raw imagination and followed her own mandate: to publish "good books for bad children." Her literary offspring include "Harriet the Spy," "Charlotte's Web," "Where the Wild Things Are" and scads of other titles that conjure up a kid in bed, after hours, secretly turning pages with the aid of a forbidden flashlight.

Nordstrom's authors were among the first to address topics such as racial tension, homoeroticism and divorce. But breaking taboos was not her primary goal. Nordstrom prided herself on recognizing, and attending to, genius -- as her charmingly effusive letters demonstrate. To Maurice Sendak, whom she discovered in 1951 when the illustrator was still a window dresser at F.A.O. Schwarz, she writes, "Emotion combined with an artist's talent is ... RARE." Nordstrom saw herself as a conduit between author and child, sternly warning one critic "not to sift [his] reactions ... through [his] adult prejudices and neuroses."

The early letters in this well-edited collection recall a New York of carbon copies, cigarette smoke and author-publisher fidelity. Photographs show the stable of Harper authors with whom the editor communed from her vintage desk: Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, Shel Silverstein and so on. A daughter of the Depression, Nordstrom was troubled by wasted paper, and tried to cover each page of stationery completely before she pulled it from her typewriter. The result, as Leonard Marcus explains in his marvelous introduction, was "a solid, single-spaced wall of words."

Nordstrom was concerned about wasted talent, too. By turns girlish and maternal, stubborn and dismissive, she coached her "geniuses" aggressively. When her authors' family obligations interfered with the production schedule, she could be a real bully -- an odd attitude for a children's book editor but one that yielded bestsellers. In spite of her prodding, she never failed to entertain her correspondents. Nordstrom shared thoughts about creative vision, self-doubt, God and, inevitably, whether the monster on page such-and-such should look delighted or demented or both. Her letters lay bare the scaffolding behind the magic stage of picture books.

Childless herself, Nordstrom lived with her companion, Mary Griffith, and died of ovarian cancer in 1988. During her impressive tenure, she rarely lost an author to a rival publisher. Her no-nonsense style meshed well with her innate ability to understand kids. When asked by a librarian to state her qualifications as a publisher of children's literature, the editor answered sharply, "I am a former child." Readers of this unusual volume can imagine Nordstrom back at her office after that exchange, dashing off another breathless letter about ignorant grownups.

Katherine Wolff

Katherine Wolff is a freelance writer and editor living in Boston.

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