Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ursula Nordstrom: Keeping the Channel Open

Mama Bear Nordstrom

Whenever I'm feeling sorry for myself, in a writerly sort of way,  I have a two-pronged approach to shaking myself out of it: 1) Reread the letters of Ursula Nordstrom, and 2) Pretend that she's writing them to me.

Nordstrom was the doyenne of kidlit--an assistant, then editor,  board member, VP, and finally semi-retired "consultant" to Harper Books for Boys and Girls from the late '30s until she died of ovarian cancer in 1988 -- she extricated children's literature from its vat of sugar-and-spice, dusted it off, and set it down firmly in the real world. Nordstrom had no fear of the dark side. She edited and championed E.B. White's Charlotte's Web (First line: "Where's Papa going with that ax?"); her letters to White about Garth Williams's spider illustrations are priceless. She discovered Maurice Sendak and gave him a real job (he was dressing windows at F.A.O. Schwartz), hiring him to illustrate Little Bear. Under her aegis dozens of authors won Newberys, National Book Awards, and Hans Christian Anderson Medals. If you haven't read her letters, Dear Genius, you must.

But her accomplishments have nothing to do with why I turn to Nordstrom in moments of self-doubt. Nordstrom knew how to precisely calibrate writerly encouragement: each letter an ingenious recipe of flattery, exhortation, modest advice, call to action, gentle suggestion. They're exactly the kinds of letters you'd kill for from an editor. And when all else failed to move whichever blocked or recalcitrant or less than amiable writer she was dealing with, Nordstrom would pull a crumpled paper from her purse, flatten it out on her desk, and read it over. It was a quote from Martha Graham and it went like this:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time this expression is unique. And if you block it it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  
Dear Ursula, I keep that quote in my purse now, too.


  1. Sounds like a winner. I think I need to go find that book. =)

  2. Thank you for introducing me to what appears to be a most remarkable woman in the kidlit sphere - a gutsy, compassionate woman whom we all should know! This tribute reminds me a lot of the tributes I read to Margaret McElderry - of the same ilk, I suspect.

  3. @Joanna: yes, like McElderry, another kidlit hero! Kidlit was a place where working women could find, and lead, their own way; although they were paid less, the men in the industry pretty much left them in peace. Nordstrom was a shrewd businesswoman and always kept her department well in the black.