The Legacy of Ursula Nordstrom

By Jason Boog 

9780064462358You probably enjoyed Charlotte’s Web or Harriet the Spy at one point in your life. But do you know who edited those great kid’s books?

After covering the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Conference last weekend, I caught up with the New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist Betsy Bird and Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blogger Julie Danielson, co-authors of the brand new book, Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (co-written with Peter Sieruta).

Q: Could you tell us more about the life and work of the great children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom? What are some of the books you recommend from this great editor?

Betsy Bird: “Ursula’s list begins to resemble nothing so much as a Who’s Who in children’s literature after a while. She had this crazy sense of humor that went well with her ability to spot potential children’s literature talent.

I mean, seriously, who would have looked at Shel Silverstein‘s rather explicit cartoons in Playboy and thought ‘There’s the man that children everywhere will love!?'”

“If you get a chance you just have to pick up Leonard Marcus‘ book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (pictured, via).

“Her list is too long to really encompass but if I were going to pick my favorites I’d go with Harriet the Spy (she edited Louise Fitzhugh‘s caustic classic and is directly responsible for the beauty it is today), Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (because I’m old school) and Stevie by John Steptoe (because she was into #WeNeedDiverseBooks long before it was trending).”

download (3)Q: What are your favorite secret messages you discovered hidden in children’s books while writing this book?

Betsy Bird: “I don’t know if you’d necessarily label it a ‘secret message’ per se, but I’ve always been inordinately fond of a kid by the name of ‘Dickie Berkenbush’ or ‘Dickie Birkenbush’ (depending on whom you consult).

“This was a story our co-writer Peter Sieruta dug up and it concerns that well known classic tale Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Any parent who has read the book enough times might notice that there’s this bizarre acknowledgement right smack dab in the middle of the book of Dickie. The story behind his contribution to the Virginia Lee Burton classic is worth the price of admission alone.”

Julie Danielson: “Caldecott medalist Trina Schart Hyman snuck all kinds of stuff into her books, but one of my favorites is that she painted the great Lloyd Alexander into the background of a scene in The Fortune-Tellers, published in 1992. Author Lois Lowry, who was good friends with Trina, once mentioned this at her website and notes that Trina painted him “looking morosely into a drink.” This story, as well as the illustration, appears in our book.”

Jason Boog is the former editor of GalleyCat. Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint just published his first book, Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age. Full disclosure: Betsy Bird wrote the introduction to this book.