Behind Our Favorite Children's Books, a Woman Who Championed Imagination

Cultural Curator

Maria Popova is a reader and a writer, and writes about what she reads on Brain Pickings (brainpickings.org), which is included in the Library of Congress archive of culturally valuable materials. She has also written for The New York TimesWired UK, and The Atlantic, among others, and is an MIT Fellow. She is on Twitter @brainpicker.

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TRANSCRIPT

Maria Popova:  Hardly anyone has raised more conscientious imaginative children than the legendary mid century children's book editor Ursula Nordstrom, who brought to life such multi generational classics as Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, E.B. White's Charlottes Web, Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. During her long tenure at Harper and Row, Nordstrom was not just an editor to her authors and her artist but their friend, their confident, their therapist, their greatest champion always. She stood up against censorship and constantly bolstered the creative confidence of these young writers and artists. She was especially instrumental in the life of Maurice Sendak, who might not to be we know him as today without her. And she, by the way, was a beautiful letter writer. Her letters are collected in a book called Dear Genius by the children's book historian Leonard Marcus. And so in one exchange with Sendak he wrote to her despairing over having been commissioned to illustrate the work of Tolstoy and feeling utterly inadequate to match Tolstoy's genius.

And so she wrote to him and said, "You may not be Tolstoy but Tolstoy wasn't Sendak either. You have a vast and beautiful genius." This emboldened Sendak enormously and by the following year he was already working on his very own Where the Wild Things Are, which went on to become one of the most beloved children's books of all time. But most of all Nordstrom defended the world and the experience of the child against all the commercial pressures for commodities and conformity and politely boring story telling that dominated children's books at the time. And so the most benevolent patron saint of modern childhood ended up being a gay woman working at the height of consumerism and somehow managing to publish and envision and defend books that were not forgettable commodities but extraordinary masterworks that stood the test of time and moved and inspired and enchanted generations.

 


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