Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Maurice Sendak And His Editor Ursula Nordstrom: A Cautionary Tale

Today is the 50th anniversary of Maurice Sendak’s The Nutshell Library, which is an excellent collection (anything that features "a cautionary tale" deserves reading) and well worth purchasing if you have or know any children or are feeling especially fragile just now. It contains, among other books, Alligators All Around, notable for being perhaps the greatest book about alligators ever written. Children ought to know more about alligators and be properly frightened of them. When I was a child every night my father would sing to us the same song:

Sooner or later
I’ll be an alligator and I’ll eat all of my children,
every one
Oh, I’m a happy cannibal pappy
I’d love a good infanticidal stew,
Wouldn’t you?
Sooner or later
I’ll be an alligator
Then I’ll eat all of my children
That means you!

It was a very good song for a father to have written, we thought at the time and still think today, and we were often very well behaved as a result. You may sing it to your children if you like.

Maurice Sendak died earlier this year, at 83, but he did write us a lot of terribly nice books so I don’t think it’s right to complain. In addition to writing his own, he illustrated a great many other people’s books, including Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear series. This was almost was not about a little bear at all, as Else's first American publisher insisted that the bears be replaced with human children. She rightly resisted the change (Luckily for his or her family, the name of this bear-eraser has been lost to time.) But it's Maurice's own books which we're paying tribute to today—how many children learned their months with Chicken Soup With Rice? For those we have partly to thank his incredible longtime editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who was as responsible for the golden age of mid-century children’s literature as any single person could be.

The two met in 1950 while Maurice was working for F.A.O. Schwarz arranging window displays (and really, what would you give to have turned the corner in those days to find yourself staring into the hot eyes of one of his stagings?). She was the director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls; he was, in his words, "twenty-two and a half." Twenty-three years later she would write to him that "it would be nice [to see] on my tombstone…[I] was Mr. Sendak’s editor."

A partial list of some of the most wonderful things about her: Ursula temporarily owned Pa’s fiddle (of Little House on the Prairie fame), sent by Laura Ingalls Wilder herself. Also, she edited Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Harriet the Spy, Julie of the Wolves, and Harold and the Purple Crayon (which Will Smith is now developing as a computer-animated film, because sooner or later everything that can happen will happen).

While editing The Long Secret, the sequel to Harriet, which contained the first mention of menstruation in a children’s book, Ursula wrote, “Thank you, Louise Fitzhugh!” in the margins. She helped Marlo Thomas develop Free to Be…You and Me at Shel Silverstein’s request. And she encouraged Maurice to abandon Where the Wild Horses Are, since he could not draw horses, in favor of Wild Things.

Ursula was as committed as Maurice to the idea that it was possible to create works of art for children. In 1972, when she heard a school librarian, offended by the nudity in In the Night Kitchen, had burned a copy, she sent a personal note to the librarian: "We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy's nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children. … Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses?"

In private, Ursula was less circumspect about her feelings toward such censors. "Some mediocre ladies in influential positions are actually embarrassed by an unusual book," she once wrote to author Meindert DeJong, "and so prefer the old familiar stuff which doesn’t embarrass them and also doesn’t give the child one slight inkling of beauty and reality."

She should have written a book herself, you might say. She did! The Secret Language, about two girls who develop a special friendship at boarding school, if you’re picking up what I’m putting down, was published in 1960. "Sooner or later everyone has to go away from home for the first time," it begins; "Sometimes it happens when a person is young. Sometimes it happens when a person is old. But sooner or later it does happen to everyone. It happened to Victoria North when she was eight."

Like Maurice, Ursula was gay—she spent decades with her partner Mary Griffith, whom she met during her early years at Harper and who was mentioned as a "longtime companion" in her 1988 obituary. The next year she was inducted into the Publishing Hall of Fame.

A decade after she died, editor Leonard Marcus compiled her correspondence in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. The cover, illustrated by Maurice himself, shows Ursula plump and white-faced, smiling and dressed in black. She is surrounded by masses of flowers and sits underneath a full moon. This letter, written to Sendak in 1961 (the year before The Nutshell Library's publication, incidentally), is a good example of the kind of encouragement Nordstrom provided her writers. The story behind it is that Sendak, illustrating a children's book by Tolstoy, began to doubt himself and wrote a letter to Nordstrom detailing all his self-doubts. Here is part of what she wrote back:

You reminded me that you are 33. I always think 29, but OK. Anyhow, aren't the thirties wonderful? And 33 is still young for an artist with your potentialities. I mean, you may not do your deepest, fullest, richest work until you are in your forties. You are growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote, and to think about your letter. I'm sorry you have writers cramp as you put it but glad that you're putting down "pure Sendakian vaguery" (I think you invented that good word). The more you put down the better and I'll be glad to see anything you want to show me. You referred to your "atoms worth of talent." You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn't Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius. You wrote "It would be wonderful to want to believe in God. The aimlessness of living is too insane." That is the creative artist—a penalty of the creative artist—wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we're lucky. Well, not making any sense but will send this anyhow.

So today the Nutshell Library is 50. I always think 43, but OK.

Related: The Cost Of Being A Kid In A Classic Adventure Novel

Mallory Ortberg is a writer in the Bay Area. Her work has also appeared on The Hairpin, Slacktory and Ecosalon.

14 Comments / Post A Comment

libelle (#9,013)

Thanks for this article! I'd never before heard of Ursula Nordstrom.
Then again, I was one of those people who thought Edward Gorey was dead until the New Yorker article.

melis (#1,854)

@libelle I thought he was dead too! Is he really still alive?

David (#192)

My favorite story from Nordstom's letters in the Dear Genius compilation is one where she relates being– at the back of her mind, while she is up to 10,000 other things all at once, as people do in NYC– on the hunt for someone that could draw, someone that could illustrate a book she was in the process of editing. So while exhaustedly out and about at this or that party in the City, she finds herself at a gallery opening where upon paying attention to what’s on the walls, she sees some great drawings that cause her to exclaim something to the effect of "now, THAT person can draw!" On closer inspection, she discovers that all of the drawings on display were by Henri Matisse. Her experience, impact and influence was as I always hope it can be in NY.

Jared (#1,227)

@David This is an awesome story and please believe that I mean that, but it does not paint NY as favorably as you seem to think.

laurel (#4,035)

This was wonderful. I'm the youngest of four and was the weary recipient of a deluge of well-worn handmedowns of all kinds. I treasured my copies of The Nutshell Library, the first books my parents purchased new for me.

wee_ramekin (#33,118)

"You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn't Sendak, either."

Man, I imagine that that is one of the most heartening things that an editor could write to an author.

Thanks for this info about Ursula Nordstrom. That's amazing that she had a hand in so many classic stand-bys of children's literature.

cherrispryte (#444)

@wee_ramekin That is just the best line, isn't it?

irieagogo (#209,640)

Sendak was one of the best Colbert interviews ever!

"it's a miracle I haven't destroyed another human"

I'm going to look up Ms Nordstrom's book!–1

blue_canary (#238,555)

@irieagogo holey shirt, thanks for the link. That is the most amazing interview–it's left me kind of dazed, actually.

MoxyCrimeFighter (#238,553)

This is a song my father used to sing to us:

Pater's going to cover you with honey (honey);
he'll put you on the ant pile, and the ants will eat you up!
They'll taaaake you dooown to the baaaackyard
and cut you into pieces and carry you down their hole, oh!
Pater's going to cover you with honey (honey),
then put you on the ant pile, and the ants will eat you up!

hammitt (#238,240)

This is the most wonderful article. Everything in it. Especially as I was at first vaguely indignant that you would name a BEST book about Alligators until I remembered that Lyle Lyle Crocodile is, quite obviously, about a crocodile. So that's all okay then. Maurice can be the best at alligators.

sheistolerable (#180,103)

Everything about this post makes me so happy. I'm singing your father's song in my head to the tune of "Sooner or later, love is gonna get ya."

notfromvenus (#232,002)

Oh, how cool! Maurice Sendak holds a place near and dear to my childhood, but I'd never heard of Ursula Nordstrom.

Though I'm a little surprised you mentioned a song about alligators and didn't mention the Carol King song version of Alligators All Around! (Which of course, is now stuck in my head.) She did a whole album based on Sendak's work.

OMG, I loved The Secret Language as a kid! It was one of my favorite books, and I still have my dog-eared and creased copy. I didn't know anything about its author and had never met anybody who had heard of it before this article. Thank you!

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