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Ursula Nordstrom

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Ursula Nordstrom
Born(1910-02-02)February 2, 1910[1]
Manhattan, New York
DiedOctober 11, 1988(1988-10-11) (aged 78)
New Milford, Connecticut
OccupationEditor, author
GenreChildren's literature
EmployerHarper & Brothers
Notable awardsConstance Lindsay Skinner Award (Women's National Book Association)
Curtis Benjamin Award (Association of American Publishers)
PartnerMary Griffith
ParentsHenry E. Dixey
Marie Nordstrom

Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910 – October 11, 1988) was publisher and editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row from 1940 to 1973. She is credited with presiding over a transformation in children's literature in which morality tales written for adult approval gave way to works that instead appealed to children's imaginations and emotions.[2]

She also authored the 1960 children's book, The Secret Language.[3] A collection of her correspondence was published in 1998 as Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.

Early life and education[edit]

Ursula Nordstrom was born on February 2, 1910 in New York City to vaudeville comedians Henry E. Dixey and Marie Nordstrom.[4][5] Her father was one of the most famous American actors at the time, and was roughly thirty years older than Marie Ursula Nordstrom; the pair co-starred in the play, Mary Jane's Pa and were married in 1910.[5] She was raised in Manhattan until the age of seven, when her parents divorced and she began attending Winnwood School in Lake Grove and later, Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts.[5][6] Although Nordstrom had hopes of becoming a writer and wanted to continue her education at Bryn Mawr College, she was prevented by her stepfather, Elliott R. Brown and instead took secretarial and business courses at The Scudder School for Girls.[4][7]


Nordstrom was first hired at Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) in 1931 as a clerk in the College Textbook department.[5] In 1936, she became the assistant of Ida Louise Raymond, the director of Harper Books for Boys and Girls, who helped publish the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Clare Turlay Newberry.[4]

In 1940, Raymond announced her plans to adopt a child and retire; at the time, the executive leaders held the small department in low esteem and were nonplussed by Raymond's departure.[4] As her former assistant, Nordstrom was selected to replace her as the editor-in-chief of the Boys and Girls department, a position she would hold for over thirty years.[7] Immediately after accepting the position, she read Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy comics to familiarize herself with the things that children enjoyed.[4] In 1954, she became the first woman elected to Harper's board of directors and in 1960, the first female vice president of the company.[8][9]

The first book Nordstrom edited and published was E. B. White's Stuart Little in 1945, and she would go on to edit several more classics of children's literature, including Charlotte's Web (1952), Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon (1947), Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), Syd Hoff's Danny and the Dinosaur (1958), Karla Kuskin's Roar and More (1956), and Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974).[2][10]

In 1950, Nordstrom met Maurice Sendak, who was then working as a window decorator at F.A.O. Schwartz.[8][11] She was drawn to his "naughty" characters and the complex journeys they embarked on, and helped publish Where the Wild Things Are in 1963 after it was rejected by other publishing houses.[2][8] Nordstrom would serve as a lifelong mentor and friend to Sendak; after her death, he told The New York Times, "With her incomparable editorial genius, Ursula Nordstrom transformed the American children's book into a genuine art form."[2]

Nordstrom disliked the genteel, sentimental tone of American children's literature and sought to bring children crimes and punishments of fellow miscreants with books like Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. Her unorthodox outlook on publishing and lack of educational pedigree is best summed up by her motto “good books for bad children."[4][12] This approach often garnered criticism from other publishers and children's librarians, most notably Anne Carroll Moore of the New York Public Library.[5] Many of Nordstrom's publications featured taboo themes and subjects, such as menstruation, same-sex relationships, and racism, and continue to be the target of book ban campaigns today.[8] At some point, she was offered a "promotion" to the adult literature department of Harper, but refused due to her belief that publishing children's books was more interesting and important.[7] She was known as a stubborn but welcoming editor; she disliked both "stuffy" and babyish language, and understood the literary impact that seemingly simple texts for children could have.[5][4]

Nordstrom and her authors and illustrators felt that the best book is a fruit of a good working relationship between author and illustrator, which gave way to partnerships between Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak and Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd.[13] Other authors she edited included Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ruth Krauss, Charlotte Zolotow, John Steptoe, M.E. Kerr, and Arnold Lobel.[14][4][7]

In 1957, Nordstrom edited two books that received major awards: Janice May Udry's A Tree is Nice received the Caldecott Medal, and Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School was awarded the Newbery Medal.[6] Another double victory occurred in 1964, when Emily Neville's It's Like This, Cat and Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are were awarded the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal, respectively.[6] She is also credited with developing an innovative children's literature genre, sometimes called "concept books" or independent readers, designed for children who have just begun reading on their own.[6][7] In 1957, she introduced this genre with the I Can Read Books series.[5]

In 1960, Nordstrom published her own children's book, The Secret Language, about a young girl's experiences at a boarding school, possibly based on her own childhood.[2] The book was received positively, despite its inclusion of implicit conversations about lesbian sexuality, and was reprinted in 1988.[15] According to children's literature historian, Leonard S. Marcus, Nordstrom may have written a sequel titled The Secret Choice, but could not decide on the book's ending and ultimately burned the manuscript.[15]

Nordstrom stepped down as publisher in 1973, but continued on as senior editor with her own imprint, Ursula Nordstrom Books, until her retirement in 1979.[2][11] She was succeeded at Harper's by her protege, author Charlotte Zolotow, who began her career as Nordstrom's stenographer and to whom The Secret Language was dedicated.[5]

Awards and legacy[edit]

Nordstrom's novel, The Secret Language, was named a 1960 Notable Children's Book by the American Library Association.[2] In 1972, Nordstrom was a recipient of the Women's National Book Association's Constance Lindsay Skinner Award. In 1980, she was the first woman and children's publisher to receive the Association of American Publishers' Curtis Benjamin Award.[7]

In 1989, she was posthumously inducted into the Publishing Hall of Fame.[7] In 1998, Nordstrom's personal correspondence was published as Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (illustrated by Maurice Sendak), edited by Leonard S. Marcus.

Personal life and death[edit]

While working at Harper, Nordstrom met her life partner, Mary Griffith.[16][7] The pair lived together in Greenwich Village for several years, before moving to Bridgewater, Connecticut after Nordstrom's retirement.

Nordstrom passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 78 on October 11, 1988, at the New Milford Hospital in Connecticut, with Griffith at her side.[2]

Publishing highlights[edit]

Publishing highlights
Date Title Author Significance
1942 The Runaway Bunny Margaret Wise Brown, ill. by Clement Hurd
1945 Stuart Little E. B. White, ill. by Garth Williams
1945 The Carrot Seed Ruth Krauss, ill. by Crockett Johnson
1947 Goodnight Moon Margaret Wise Brown, ill. by Clement Hurd
1949 My World Margaret Wise Brown, ill. by Clement Hurd
1952 Charlotte's Web E. B. White Newbery Honor Book, Horn Book Fanfare, Massachusetts Children's Book Award
1953 A Very Special House Ruth Krauss, ill. by Maurice Sendak Caldecott Honor
1955 Harold and the Purple Crayon Crockett Johnson
1956 Harry the Dirty Dog Gene Zion, ill. by Margaret Bloy Graham
1956 Roar and More Karla Kuskin
1958 Danny and the Dinosaur Syd Hoff
1961 The Silly Book Stoo Hample
1963 Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present Charlotte Zolotow, ill. by Maurice Sendak Newbery Honor Book
1963 Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak winner of the Caldecott Medal
1964 Harriet the Spy Louise Fitzhugh
1964 It's Like This, Cat Emily Cheney Neville winner of the Newbery Medal
1964 The Giving Tree Shel Silverstein
1965 The Long Secret Louise Fitzhugh First mention of menstruation in a novel for girls[12]
1966 Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories Isaac Bashevis Singer, ill. by Maurice Sendak Newbery Honor Book
1969 I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip John Donovan First young-adult novel with a gay theme[12]
1969 Stevie John Steptoe Written and illustrated by 19 year old African-American author and presented a first-person account, in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), about the main character's feelings as a foster brother[4]
1970 In the Night Kitchen Maurice Sendak First portrayal of full frontal nudity in a picture book[12]
1974 Where the Sidewalk Ends Shel Silverstein


  • The Secret Language, 1960

In popular culture[edit]

Ursula Nordstrom and her accomplishments are told in Good Books for Bad Children: The Genius of Ursula Nordstrom, a biographical children's book written by Beth Kephart and illustrated by Chloe Bristol.[17]


  1. ^ Date of birth info (2/2/1910)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Anderson, Susan Heller (1988-10-12). "Ursula Nordstrom, 78, a Nurturer Of Authors for Children, Is Dead". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-13.
  3. ^ The Secret Language
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Marcus, Leonard C.; Marcus, Leonard S. (2008). Minders of Make-believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 334. ISBN 978-0395674079. nordstrom.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Nordstrom, Ursula (1998). Marcus, Leonard S (ed.). Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. New York: HarperTrophy. ISBN 0-06-446235-8.
  6. ^ a b c d Miller, Marilyn (August 30, 2003). Pioneers and Leaders in Library Services to Youth: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Bloomsbury. pp. 182–183. ISBN 9780313053184.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Ware, Susan (2004). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674014886.
  8. ^ a b c d Wulfhart, Nell McShane (2023-08-04). "The fighter behind many of the most beloved children's books of all time". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2024-03-13.
  9. ^ HarperCollins (2017). Stories from HarperCollins Publishers: 1817-2017. Internet Archive. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-06-269836-0.
  10. ^ Sinkler, Rebecca Pepper (1998-03-22). "Confessions of a Former Child". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-24.
  11. ^ a b Davies, Jeffrey (2022-02-18). "Ursula Nordstrom and the Queer Revolution of the 20th Century Children's Book". BOOK RIOT. Retrieved 2024-03-13.
  12. ^ a b c d Sinkler, Rebecca Pepper (22 March 1998). "Confessions of a Former Child". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  13. ^ "CHILDREN'S BOOKS; HOW TO MAKE A PICTURE BOOK". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  14. ^ Marcus, Leonard S. (1997). The Making of Goodnight Moon. New York: HarperTrophy. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-06-446192-4.
  15. ^ a b Blewett, Kelly (2016-08-28). "Ursula Nordstrom and the Queer History of the Children's Book". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 2024-03-13.
  16. ^ Blewett, Kelly (2017). "Reading Children's Book Editor Ursula Nordstrom: Archives of Literacy Sponsorship,Workplace Persuasion, and Queer Networks" (PDF). Peitho Journal. 20 (1): 37–62 – via The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition.
  17. ^ Kephart, Beth (September 19, 2023). "Good Books for Bad Children: The Genius of Ursula Nordstrom". Anne Schwartz Books.

External links[edit]