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Discovering Contemporary Classics: An Interview with Ursula Nordstrom

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 3, Number 1, 1979
pp. 119-135 | 10.1353/uni.0.0355

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

GD: What first brought you into the field of children's literature?

UN: Well, at first I wanted to be a social worker because I went to boarding school at a very early age and was moved by the sadness of some of the youngest children.

RN: I can see that in The Secret Language.

UN: I was a daughter of the depression, so I wasn't able to go to college and get the necessary degrees. Since my next love was publishing, I went to Harper's and was fortunate enough to get a job in the college department. I didn't like it though; it wasn't like working for a publisher. Then I became good friends with Louise Raymond, the head of the children's book department. It was so small at the time that she had to go to the editor in the trade department, a man who knew nothing about children's books, before she could accept anything. Louise followed Virginia Kirkis—a lot of people don't think there actually was a Virginia Kirkis, but there was.

GD: Virginia Kirkis of The Kirkis Review?

UN: Right. So when Louise decided to leave to get married and begin a family, the head of Harper's said, "Well, do you think your assistant could take over?" That's how much they thought of children's books—it was such a tiny department, you know. Louise said she was sure I could handle it, and I said to them "I will take the job and be very happy about it, but give me enough rope. If I hang myself, I hang myself." So they gave me the opportunity. By this time I had worked for Louise for four years and had become very interested in the field. Then the letters started coming in from children who'd read books that I'd had a little bit to do with and that was a terrific thrill. And in those days you were able to do a lot of experimentation because you could print such small editions.

GD: How small?

UN: Well, I think I printed five thousand at a dollar a copy of Bears by Ruth Krauss, which is still in print. And I thought, "Well, the salesmen can surely get rid of two thousand copies and I can buy up the rest of the three thousand at my fifty percent discount, over a period of time." The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein was also a very small first edition.

RN: How small?

UN: I think it was five thousand or seventy-five hundred and it's now sold hundreds and hundreds of thousands of copies. It's still in print and, of course, he's gone on to do a lot of other very wonderful books. Now they do a book in lots of color; you have to print about fifty thousand copies. And even so, the list prices are getting very high. Here's a copy of Cheerful by Palmer Brown in color, that we published at a dollar and a half in 1957 and here's a copy of a slightly larger book by Palmer Brown, just published in 1978, with color, and it had to be $6.95. So I was very fortunate in that the management didn't interfere with me and I could do so-called "crazy" books.

GD: Like which books?

UN: Well, like Ruth Krauss' first books. Nobody expected A Hole is to Dig to do what it did. She brought it in to me all on three-by-five cards, and I went into hysterics over some of the definitions, they were so marvelous and there had never been a book like it. She said she had a certain man in mind to illustrate it, and I thought he was the worst choice in the world, but I always tried to make the authors happy. So I asked him to come in with his agent and he didn't understand one three-by-five card. You know, "Rugs are so dogs can have napkins," and things like that. He just sat there and said, "Well, when you all have...