March 1998

Dear Genius

By Leonard S. Marcus
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Ursula Nordstrom is to children's publishing what Babe Ruth is to baseball. A trendsetter who made and broke records, Nordstrom served as director of Harper Books for Boys and Girls (later Harper Junior Books) from 1940 until 1973. At that point she became senior editor for her own imprint, Ursula Nordstrom Books, also published by Harper, until she retired in 1979.

Self-taught as an editor, Nordstrom took Harper & Brothers to the top of the children's book publishing world. She believed, and rightly so, that publishing quality books for children was the highest calling. In a letter to George Woods she writes: "I must have told you the old story of how I was patronizingly offered a job as an editor of adult books, ”now that you have proved you can successfully do children's books.'" A point of pride was that her department was no longer referred to as the Kiddie Book Department.

In his introduction to this absorbing collection of her letters, editor Leonard Marcus says Nordstrom "belonged to the last generation of devoted letter writers." Thanks to him, we can read some of her letters and get insight not only into Nordstrom's personality but also the personalities of the many children's authors with whom she worked. The letters vividly demonstrate her ability in editing as well as her wit, compassion, and concern for both their personal and professional lives.

"Dear Genius," the term Nordstrom employed to address many of them, should really refer to Nordstrom herself. Her genius included discovering Maurice Sendak and John Steptoe; keeping authors such as Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy) and Meindert DeJong (The Wheel on the School) happy when they felt they were worth more time or money than they were receiving; giving firm, yet positive, pushes when deadlines weren't met; and running a profitable children's department for administrators who were much more interested in the adult department.

Knowledge of the fields of publishing or children's literature is not needed to enjoy Dear Genius. Interest in the letters of a great correspondent is all it takes.

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