Friday, June 09, 2006

The Influence of a Good Editor

I've been reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. What an amazing woman and what a lively collection of letters!

Nordstrom was the director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940-1973, and as such, she was highly influential in the area of American children's literature for decades. You may have never heard of her, but among other things, she discovered Maurice Sendak (who was designing window displays for F.A.O. Schwarz) and helped bring to birth such children's classics as Charlotte's Web, Good Night, Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, and the I Can Read Series that featured the Little Bear stories. And that's just a a sampling. She worked with some of the most innovative authors and illustrators in the business.

And when I say worked with them, I don't just mean discovered their talent, corrected their punctuation, or made a kind suggestion now and again. What's revelatory about her letters is how hard a good editor works over every detail of a book, even a picture book with relatively few words. Nordstrom had a knack for encouraging her writers, lavishing praise on their good work and challenging the work they gave her that she considered less than good. She pushed them to find just the right words, and to create pictures that really brought literature to life. Her letters to E.B. White over the rough drawings by Garth Williams for Charlotte's Web almost made me laugh, she was so earnest about getting things just right, literally line by line. I discovered that I also have her to thank for one of my favorite illustrations from childhood, the picture of Esther Averill's Jenny the cat doing the sailor's hornpipe (where you can just see one paw lifting over the basket). The image was in the text, but Nordstrom encouraged Averill to draw it.

I'm very glad she stayed a children's book editor, as that was her main love. In one of the letters she relates a funny story about a member of Harper's management taking her to lunch to offer her a job as an editor in one of the "grown-up" book divisions. His implication was clear: that she'd be "moving up" if she took such a job. And Nordstrom wrote this to describe her own response:

"I almost pushed the luncheon table into the lap of the pompous gentleman opposite me and then explained kindly that publishing children's books was what I did, that I couldn't possibly be interested in books for dead dull finished adults, and thank you very much but I had to get back to my desk to publish some more good books for bad children."

I hope that quote gives you an indication of the lively quality of her voice and personality, which by all accounts was larger than life. Wonderful letters!


Erin said...

She sounds delightful! It sounds like we children's lit enthusiasts have a lot to be grateful to her for.

Did you ever hear the anecdote about Dr. Seuss? He was at some posh party, and this neurologist went up to him and said, "Oh, I write children's books as a hobby." Seuss smiled and said, "I too have a hobby... Brain surgery." ;)

Beth said...

Ha!! Love the Seuss story! That one's going into my journal. :-)

I'm LOVING the Nordstrom letters. It sounds funny to say I'm having a hard time putting down a collection of letters, but there you have it. She was utterly fascinating and mentored some of the best...and helped make their books all the better. You'd love all the letters she wrote to E.B. White, Garth Williams and Maurice Sendak.