the making of great children’s books

Am currently reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. This is a fantastic book, containing the letters of a brilliant, enthusiastic, stubborn, and very determined woman. I’m sure none of you have heard of Ursula Nordstrom—and I hadn’t either. But she edited some of the real founders of modern children’s literature. Her books include The Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Where the Wild Things Are, The Giving Tree, Harriet the Spy… She didn’t just edit these books; she championed them.

(By the way, I haven’t gotten to her letters about Harriet yet—very excited. That one was a real favorite of mine. You want proof? See grainy, scanned-in picture of yours truly. I was on vacation with my family in that old Catskills resort, the Nevele.* I remember sneaking around the edges of the hotel dining room, listening in on conversations and scribbling away in my notebook, thinking I was Harriet the Spy. I truly believed that the sunglasses etc helped my spy efforts. God, I think I still have that notebook somewhere in my parents’ house. I should probably try to dig that up.)

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(Another side note about Harriet: at one point I owned three or four copies of the book, all with different covers. One had been my mother’s, one was fairly new, and so on. There was a book swap being held at the local library, where you could trade in your books for others. When I went through my shelves to see which books I’d be willing to part with, I couldn’t bring myself to give away a single copy of that one.)

Okay, enough about that.
As I’m now working as a children’s book editor, it’s possible that I am getting more excited about Dear Genius than your average citizen. However, we all grew up on these classic children’s books, and it’s fascinating and inspiring to see how they were made.

Also, I just read this great quote from one of Ursula’s self-described “vague and wandering” letters: “As a wise man once said, ‘I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have the time to write a short one.'”

*Nevele is Eleven spelled backwards. I wasn’t sure why it was called this, but that’s a piece of trivia that was drilled into my head. Just looked it up though: According to lore, [the name comes from] the eleven nineteenth-century schoolteachers who discovered the waterfall from which the hotel takes its name.”

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