Maurice Sendak And His Editor Ursula Nordstrom: A Cautionary Tale

by Mallory Ortberg

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.