Book reviews / Non fiction / Read Harder

Book review: Dear Genius, the letters of Ursula Nordstrom

Okay, I’m really starting to love the Read Harder 2019 challenge.

I’m not sure I would have ever looked or found this book if it hadn’t been for the challenge. Dear Genius is a selection of letters to authors and other people from Ursula Nordstrom, head of the children’s book department for Harpers books from 1940-1973. She basically published some of the most amazing books for kids. Such as Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web, Harriet the Spy, Goodnight Moon. Basically she changed the the industry of kid’s publishing.

Now if that wasn’t impressive enough, she was so progressive! She published the first books that mentioned menstruation for girls, that dealt with racial inequality and that had gay themes. Like oh my god, she was a powerhouse and would defend a book, no matter how controversial, if she thought it was a story that should be told. What an amazing woman. I also really enjoyed her over Richard Nixon being president, there was one particular letter where she recounted disagreeing with her mother over it!

What makes it great though is Ursula’s personality in all the different letters. There are some brilliant ones where she’s chasing Edward Gorey, teasing in a bunch of different languages “where is the book?” But what mostly shines through is her respect and passion for her authors and illustrators. She wants to help them be there best and give them confidence that their best work isn’t behind them. There’s some really touching ones with Maurice Sendak after his father dies, just really heartfelt and sympathetic.

She just also loved making brilliant books for children. In at least two letters she recounted the anecdote of being offered to be the editor for adult books, as it was seen as more prestigious. However, she wanted to stay with children’s books as adults were so dull and dead inside! Ha! She also never wanted to patronise children and several letters included suggestions to authors that the language was too babyish and making sure the language fit what children would naturally say.

Anyway, it was so delightful. I’m glad I picked it up. I can’t believe I had never heard of her before and so pleased that he challenge meant that I found out about her life and all the wonderful work she did.

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