Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom by Leonard Marcus

For some reason, I didn't reign in my compulsive eating of enticing Christmas desserts this year. The cookie tray jump starts my pistons for shoveling sugar from hand-to-mouth in a blur. You'd think my pistons would have slowed down now that I'm old, but NOOOOOOOO. Now because of my lack of self-control, I'm an irritable, hamster-type pedal-pusher on an elliptical machine, who is horribly sick of salads and can't eat anything because she gained 10 freaking pounds in two weeks! I have since lost the 5 pounds, but I am still hungry and cranky most of the time! So what better way to deal with it then finish Ursula Nordstrom's funny letters where, she too, pokes fun at her weight, "Well, I was all alone in the office eating my low-fat meatloaf sandwich..." or "I am dieting madly so details of food are always welcome..." or her explanation of her dog's congenital malfunction of the pyloric valve that made the pooch skinny "Maybe I'll have a nifty operation to make my pyloric valve malfunction. Then I'd get skinny." She also uses humor to cajole writers such as Edward Gorey (they were particularly funny because he always missed deadlines). "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." After getting my shot in the arm of Ursula humor and insights into the world of publishing, maybe I won't need a straitjacket.

So who is this woman, you ask? Harper's children's editor, Ursula Nordstrom, published some of the biggest authors in children's publishing: Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss, Russell Hoban, Maurice Sendak, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E.B White, Shel Silverstein to name a few. She changed the face of children's literature or at least influenced it more than any other editor in the field. If you want a glimpse into the workings of the publishing system and rapport an editor has with an author then I highly recommend this book. The turn of phrase, self-deprecating humor, candor, and risk-taking that Ursula shows make reading her tale delicious (gawl dang it, even my adjectives make me wanna eat.) Plus, she can't spell very well. How can you not love a brilliant editor who can't spell?

What becomes apparent in the overall effect of the letters is Ursula's ability to nurture author's talents and make suggestions without presenting ultimatums. She respected her authors' innate ability to create a work of genius and she seemed to know when to back off and when to assert herself. "I think it can be even funnier in the beginning but that may be because I read it with 1000 interruptions the other morning." Not all correspondence is rosy and misunderstandings are revealed. Sometimes the lack of background knowledge made it confusing and I would go off researching an author to discover more about him or her. For instance, Ursula is very concerned about John Steptoe and I wanted more background because the information was incomplete. Some readers might find this annoying, but I didn't. Sometimes I just wanted the flavor of her correspondence. Other times, I didn't care. Take the tale of Meindert deJong. The background information is sketchy but from the footnotes I gather he left her as an agent for a rival publishing house after many years of working together (10 folders of correspondence according to Marcus). She doesn't dwell on it in her letters and I admired her ability to move on and not be bitter.

A joy I got from reading Ursula's epistles are the humor and perspective she gives toward work and living each day. Her character and wit emerge through her correspondence of letters from 1937-1982. I was having a rough week at work and read her book that night finding a quote that put the uncontrollable happenings in life in perspective for me: "But enough of this sorry theme, lest I lose my reason in attempting to reason about anything that is so thoroughly unreasonable." Humor of course is the best medicine to combat negativity and there is plenty in this novel. "Dreary note but it is a dreary day and I'm the only one in the city who doesn't simply adore Blessed Noel. I hate it. Tomi Ungerer gave me a present, of a huge gorilla dragging a nekkid Barbie doll along by the hair. She only has one red high-heeled shoe on. Real Christmassy. You can see it the next time you come to the Tot Dept. Love to you and George, Ursula Scrooge." At one point I had to stop rewriting all of her great quotes because it felt like I was recopying the entire book. My writer's journal has 29 pages of musings and Ursula sayings.

I found the controversy surrounding some of the groundbreaking children's books she published interesting and the anguish some felt over the materials. One was a psychologist who criticized Maurice Sendak's, Where the Wild Things Are, for withholding food from a child. Another had New York Public Library's Superintendent, Frances Sayers, criticizing John Donovan's children's book about a thirteen-year-old boy who has feelings for another boy that leave him confused. Of course, the letter to John from Ursula is pretty funny: "Right after I sent you my illiterate wail about Mrs. Sayer's idiotic letter about your book, I have received a copy of your reasoned, well-mannered, well-written reply to her. Well you are just too great for me. I wish I could be like you, but can't be. ...Wait until Mrs. Sayers sees Sendak's new book. His young hero appears STAKE NARKID from the front. Like, wow!" Ursula was commenting on the controversy she knew would come with the publication Maurice Sendak's newest book, In the Night Kitchen.

I did find that when I tried to plow through this book from cover-to-cover I got fatigued with the writing. Small digestible snippets of humor read here and there worked better for me.  Of course, I've been so dang hungry I can't really think strait so snippets were about all I could handle after the holidays.Okay. Maybe I do need a straitjacket.



  1. Hullo Barb, I hope you don't mind my quoting you in my biography/memoir about my mother, Clare Turlay Newberry. Ursula sent me some wonderful long letters after my mother's death, and so I wanted to quote a bit from this blog about the book about Ursula. You can see my mother's Facebook page--just began it, under her name.

    1. Yes you can quote me. I'd be honored! Lucky you to have some letters from Ursula. Good luck writing! I will check out Facebook.