books and cleverness

I read books of all sorts, but mostly kids' lit and young adult literature and speculative fiction for all ages—usually from a feminist perspective. 


I've adopted a personalized version of the CHOICE reviews approach to recommendations/star ratings:

***** = Essential, a.k.a. truly love, absolute must-read, buy it now
**** = Highly Recommended, a.k.a. this is a really good book; I would buy it as a gift
*** = Recommended, a.k.a. pretty good; worth reading
** = Optional, a.k.a. meh
* = Not Recommended; a.k.a. this is not a good book

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom - Ursula Nordstrom, Leonard S. Marcus, Maurice Sendak

Overall Recommendation:

Essential reading for anyone interested in working with children’s books—writers, editors, publishers, librarians, and so on. I expect that others may not find it to be of too much interest (unfortunately for them).


What made me pick it up?

Recommended to me as essential reading by someone who works in children’s publishing.


What is there to like?

  • A large part of the reading pleasure is that it is something of a star parade for classic children’s literature. Ursula Nordstrom seemingly worked with pretty much everyone you read as a kid: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny), Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon), Maurice Sendak, E. B. White (Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan), Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy), and so many others.
  • As such, it’s a fascinating look at how this one editor worked with and encouraged artists and writers to fulfill their creativity in so many different kinds of works.
  • It may also remind readers of or introduce them to classic children’s books to read—I, for example, never read any Ruth Krauss as a kid, but she sounds completely insane (in the best possible way) and now I want to read everything she ever wrote.
  • Nordstrom’s sense of what makes a good children’s book comes across well through her letters, and she’s completely right and her ideas are worth absorbing. She was never one for coddling or talking down to children, or for turning them into precious, whimsical little sprites. She was all for helping them be themselves and listening to what they wanted, rather than what the overprotective adults in the industry wanted—and her body of work, her influence and legacy in children’s literature through the 1950s–70s, is shown in the quality of the books she published, and how many of them remain classics even today. As a reader of many of those books when I was a kid, I feel as though I personally benefited from Ursula Nordstrom’s understanding of good books for young people.
  • Reading her practical advice is fascinating, from the perspective of seeing exactly the kind of value that good editorial advice can have. There’s one in particular to Syd Hoff, the author of Danny and the Dinosaur, where she gets extremely specific about the diction and syntax so that the book both sounds authentic and is appropriate for an “I Can Read” book (a concept she invented), as well as her input on details of illustrations. It’s clear that she cared deeply about helping the book become the best it could be, and that she did just that.
  • She is inspirational as someone who stuck by her decisions and stood by her authors, whether in the case of Maurice Sendak’s illustration of a naked little boy (censored), the first YA novel featuring a scene involving a teenage boy’s homosexual experience, or Harriet’s family (condemned as being “more appropriate for a New Yorker story than for children’s literature”).
  • Nevertheless, she was receptive to genuine critiques, and engaged with the young people who wrote in to comment on the books. For example, one young reader objected to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s language implying that Native Americans were not people, and Nordstrom wrote back to express her horrified agreement, and a promise to change the wording in subsequent editions.
  • She’s also inspirational as a figure in the history of working women.


What is there not to like?

The letters are selected, not complete. This is certainly not an inherent flaw, but at times the reader gets only bits rather than the full arc of the editorial process behind a book.


Similar To:

Caldecott & Co., Maurice Sendak