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  • Letters from the Editor:The Making of Modern Children's Literature
  • Deborah Stevenson (bio)
Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. and comp. Leonard Marcus. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

The face of modern children's literature would have been unimaginably different without the legendary Ursula Nordstrom, director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973. Her editorial contributions include some of the most significant and best-known works of the century: Goodnight Moon (1947), Charlotte's Web (1952), Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Harriet the Spy (1964). She oversaw Russell Hoban's Bedtime for Frances (1960) from back when it was titled Who's Afraid?, changed from initial doubt to wholehearted support for Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), and worked around the bedroom-scene problems entailed by the mother-daughter switch in Mary Rodgers's Freaky Friday (1972). She enabled groundbreaking mention of menstruation in Louise Fitzhugh's The Long Secret (1965) and groundbreaking mention of homosexuality in John Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969), and she sent Mickey "STAKE NARKID" (282) into the world in In the Night Kitchen (1970).

Leonard Marcus, whose previous work includes other investigations of publishing and publishing history as well as Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon (1992), has selected from "many tens of thousands of letters" written by Nordstrom several hundred; although it's always difficult to know how much of such a collection's shape comes from the source and how much from the selection, Nordstrom's tone and approach are sufficiently consistent to suggest fair sampling rather than editorial topiary. The book doesn't just opt for latitudinal representation, however; instead it effectively follows particular examples of talent development and of changing editorial relationships, of booktalk and of industry illumination. Significant strains include Nordstrom's grooming of Maurice Sendak, her thorny relationship [End Page 256] with Meindert DeJong, the evolution of her friendship with Mary Stolz, and her struggles to support a young, suspicious, and elusive John Steptoe (Nordstrom resorts, after failure to reach Steptoe himself, to writing his mother in an attempt to find him).

Her epistolary persona is witty, engaged, and dramatic, with a stylish New Yorker esque breeziness; it's easy to see why people, including Nordstrom herself, relish telling Nordstrom stories. Shrewdly noting that her exaggerated claims of her failings and self-doubts undercut their believability, Marcus states, "Her letters were her stage" (xxxiv), and indeed they bespeak Ursula Nordstrom performing "Ursula Nordstrom" and doing so very well indeed. The eternal editor, she relentlessly edits herself as she writes ("That doesn't look as funny written down" is a repeated refrain), providing an earnest token of editorial integrity to recipients of her missives. She's unable to resist editorial suggestions for her correspondents' correspondence—after nearly thirty years' friendship, she observes to Mary Stolz that "you never really write as though you'd heard from me" and models some samples of more desirable responses, attempting, not entirely convincingly, to pass her guidance off as a joke (377). Marcus doesn't limit his scope to her tours de force, however; the collection encompasses less assured and dashing productions as well. A 1953 letter to the elderly Laura Ingalls Wilder, though warmly polite, suggests in its contrast to the tone of other letters that Nordstrom really had very little to say to the revered author. And though Nordstrom's responses to letters of complaint are individually thoughtful and effective, their smoothness collectively starts looking somewhat slick and practiced, especially in conjunction with her witty private parody of such objections.

Nordstrom's company is a pleasure in its own right, but it's as a window into the making of literature that this collection really excels. The compilation provides intriguing insight into Nordstrom's editorial approach, including several instances of her painstaking and detailed analyses. There is a near-microscopic examination of Garth Williams's illustrations of Charlotte the spider—"I think that if the nose dots were made larger . . . and the line he has put in for a mouth were omitted, she would be still attractive but more of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-3374
Print ISSN
0092-8208
Pages
pp. 256-261
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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