Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (ed. Leonard S. Marcus)

Ursula Nordstrom was the children's book editor at Harper's who was responsible for among other notables: Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, and Louise Fitzhugh (who wrote my favorite y.a. novel of all time, Harriet the Spy). Last semester in my "Teaching Creative Writing" graduate course I talked about the existence of cultural gatekeepers--people who are able to dictate what art actually reaches an audience (it was in the context of workshop teachers being cultural gatekeepers at a very early stage of a writer's career since they have the power to encourage and discourage)--and the students seemed to be insisting that gatekeepers weren't as influential as I was suggesting. One student said the market--the demand of the people--would always win out. But my point was the people can't demand what doesn't exist or what isn't physically available or what they don't know exists even if it is available. I say while developments like the Internet and self-publishing do make writing more democratic, that the gatekeepers (editors, professors, reviewers, bloggers, the book buyer for Barnes and Noble...) still wield huge influence. And personally I think they're necessary (I don't want to have to read all that is written in order to find what is good). Which is the long way around to saying thank goodness Ursula Nordstrom was a gatekeeper! Some of the greatest works of children's lit--both picture books like Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon and young adult books like Charlotte's Web and The Long Secret (also Fitzhugh) might not have made it to readers without her. It's easy to see how great E.B. White is now, but let's face it, Stuart Little (his first young adult novel) is a weird book that makes quite a few people uncomfortable and it wasn't an obvious buy for an editor. Likewise, Where The Wild Things... with its monsters and rebellious little Max who threatens to eat up his mother was not in the convention of picture books of the time. So hurray for Ursula Nordstrom. And she writes very funny, charming letters that reveal just how much hand-holding and ego-soothing some authors (not all) need.

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