Review of Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

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April 20, 2015 by Beth - I SNIFF BOOKS blog

cover dear geniusDear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. Published in March 2000 by HarperCollins. Paperback with 456 pages (16 of which include large black & white photos of authors and illustrators and a few reprints of ephemera). ISBN 978-0064462358.

In case you didn’t know — and it’s totally okay to admit it, I only recently discovered this for myself — Ursula Nordstrom was a literary rockstar. Nordstrom was director of Harper Books for Boys and Girls (now simply known as HarperCollins Children’s Books) from 1940 – 1973. Thirty-three years! And that doesn’t even include the time she was employed there BEFORE and AFTER her tenure as director! In her role as director, Nordstrom had a MAJOR ROLE in publishing so many AMAZING children’s books including “The Runaway Bunny, The Carrot Seed, Stuart Little, Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, Harriet the Spy, Little Bear, Bedtime for Frances, and The Giving Tree” (xviii). The list goes on and on!

When Ursula Nordstrom wasn’t busy with her day-to-day rockstar director duties, she could be found at her typewriter.

“Nordstrom belonged to the last generation of devoted letter writers. She took immense pleasure in the act, often writing to authors when there was no obvious necessity of doing so, except for the all-important necessity of keeping a ‘channel open’ to them. Although she naturally did much of her editorial work with local authors in person or by phone, she also sent long, funny, perceptive letters to those with whom she had just spoken by telephone or just that day met for lunch. Time and again, she simply could not resist the temptation to write.” (pages xxiv – xxxv)

LUCKY FOR US all the carbon copies of letters written by Ursula Nordstrom were kept on file in HarperCollins’ archives in New York — some letters came from other sources. Leonard S. Marcus (also a literary rockstar, he is a children’s literature scholar and historian) spent two years reading tens of thousands of letters written by Ursula Nordstrom. I can only imagine what a challenge it was to choose the final letters for this collection. And, gosh, all those thousands and thousands of letters that did NOT make it into the collection — one can only HOPE there will be a second volume! (But seeing how this collection was published fifteen years ago, probably not). Although Marcus’s byline says “collected and edited by,” Marcus did MINIMAL editing to Nordstrom’s letters. Such MINOR editing included correcting minor spelling mistakes, standardizing the dating of letters, and putting titles of works in standard format (i.e. books, newspapers, and magazines are in italics). Only a handful of letters had content deleted (I counted nine) for privacy reasons and missing content is clearly indicated by [. . .] in the text.

This collection of letters is a REAL TREAT — they are fascinating and thrilling to read! (I thought I would dip in and out of Dear Genius while reading other things, but I ended up reading it like it was a novel.) And like the stories behind the stories featured in 100 Best Books for Children, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never read or heard of the authors, illustrators, or books being discussed in the letters — Leonard S. Marcus provides footnotes to identify authors, illustrators, and other significant people; books; events; the occasional inside joke; and more. (As a side note, the letters sandwiched between a 26-page introduction and 10-page index.)

Reader caveat: Just so you know, the correspondence is entirely one-sided — this book only contains Nordstrom’s letters and none of the letters that she received from various peoples she corresponded with. This was not an issue for me.

Dear Genius is a MUST READ MUST OWN book for anyone wanting behind-the-scenes details on how their favorite childhood books came to be published. It is simply awe-inspiring to read Nordstrom’s “Dear Genius” letters to authors and illustrators and other notable people. Some author/illustrator letters discuss significant text and illustration revisions. Others offer words of encouragement and praise — Nordstrom had MUCH love and admiration and respect for her creative talent, although she could give a “come to Jesus talk” if the situation called for it. The letters are also a snapshot in time about what the publishing industry was like. And let’s not forget about the letter writer — Nordstrom’s one-a-kind personality shines through in all her letters. In short, each and every letter is phenomenal. (I admit I’m fan gurling here, but I just can’t help it.)

Here is just a select offering of the sheer awesomeness contained in the letters from Ursula Nordstrom: (Any “…” are my own abridgments.) 

Excerpted from a letter To Margaret Wise Brown on January 25, 1946:

“I tried to ‘phone you this afternoon but apparently you disregarded my advice to you to stay home. I feel this was very unwise and I must ask you to take better care of your health — at least until you have a satisfactory text for the Little Fur Family.”

Excerpted from a letter to Clare Turlay Newberry on November 28, 1947:

“We are so crazy about the pictures, Clare, that is seems silly to any say anything about the text… You certainly don’t need a big, involved, dramatic plot. Some of Beatrix Potter’s wonderful little stories are absolutely simple. But your text as it stands now is somehow boneless — can’t think of the right word, there, I’m sorry.”

Excerpted from a letter to Garth Williams on February 11, 1954: 

“I know it is asking a lot of you and you know I’d never urge you to do anything without getting good money for it. But if by any chance you’d like to contribute a design for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award it will be a simply superb gift to children, children’s librarians, everyone concerned with the best in the field of children’s books. This award will not necessarily be given every year. It will, I think, become a more important award than either the Newbery or the Caldecott because it will only be awarded when it can go to some author of real stature.”

Excerpted from a letter to Maurice Sendak on June 10, 1955:

“I tried unsuccessfully to get you on the ‘phone to say Happy Birthday and to find out what the x-ray thing said, etc. Hope you have a good birthday. As I explained, I am making you a lovely present but I thought until very recently that your birthday was at the END of June, and so my present isn’t ready. (Not to keep you in suspense, dear boy, I am knitting you some galoshes, and I know you will love them.) So here is my I.O.U. for the birthday gift. As I have said to you other years, I am very glad you got born.”

Excerpted from a letter to Syd Hoff on December 4, 1957:

“First page of text and pictures (numbered 7 in your dummy, for purposes of identification.) I think you should say ‘One day Danny went to the museum.’ (He didn’t actually want to ‘see how the world looked a long, long time ago,’ as you put it, do you think? Very unchildlike. He might have wanted to go to see the dead mummies, or other specific things in a museum, but I wouldn’t mention that here because you mention it on following pages. So just have a simple statement for this first page. ‘One day Danny went to the museum.’) It is pretty short and if you can think of one more short sentence for this page by all means add it. I can’t come up with any suggestion myself.”

Excerpted from a letter to John Steptoe on May 3, 1968:

“You are tremendously talented and the world is never an easy place for a person as talented as you are. But you know your work is IMPORTANT. And ever since I first saw any of your work it has become extremely important to me.”

Excerpted from letter to Mary Stoltz on April 29, 1957

“…and the telephone was ringing and it was an author telephoning long distance to tell me good news about the third chapter, which was better than bad news about the third chapter but frankly no news about the third chapter was what I was longing to hear at that time on Sunday. So talked and then hung up and then two neighbors dropped in, and there I was in my damn slip, about to take a bath, but I am so poor I don’t have a courteous lady-help to go to the door and say ‘Sorry Miss Nordstrom is at prayer meeting and won’t be home all night.’ I don’t even have an upstairs to which I can retire while the neighbors ring the bell and then peer in through the cursed picture window. So I let them in (I put on me wrapper — of course) and they sat.”

Excerpted from letter to Virginia Haviland on April 9, 1969:

“Virginia, I can’t wait to tell you the following: The young man who inherited all the assets of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, came in a few days ago and dropped the casual remark that there is a NINTH WILDER MANUSCRIPT, written after These Happy Golden Years. I asked why in mercy’s name we had never been given it and he explained that it covers the first year of married life for Laura and Almanzo and that there is a faint air of slight disillusion in it, which Laura’s daughter thought not suited to the feeling of the 8 published books. He promised to send it to me as soon as he can get it typed. It’s in Laura’s handwriting. It’s that exciting? A voice from the grave! How thrilling it would be to have a new Wilder book!”

Excerpted from a letter to Edward Gorey on January 28, 1972:

Thanks for your card telling me you are having a nervous breakdown. Welcome to the club. I think you know that I have His and Her Straitjackets hanging in my office. Come down and slip into one and we can have a good talk. Honey, I hate to pester you, but we do so want to do beautifully by your book The Interesting List. And we were supposed to get it in November so we’d have plenty of time… If you are stuck, or discouraged, or something like that I might be able to help you get unstuck, or encouraged. I thought I had experienced all the editorial experiences an editor could experience. But you are a brand new experience for me, and it makes me feel all young again.

Even though I have turned the last page, I know that I will being picking up Dear Genius again. While reading, I made a long list of children’s books that I want to read. After reading one of them, it will be great to consult Dear Genius for any back story on the development of said book — it’s just going to add such a layer of awesomeness to the reading experience.

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


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