UN-Monday: Ursula Nordstrom on keeping the child reader at the center of the book.

Ruth Krauss photograph, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection The University of Southern Mississippi

No one (especially publishers and booksellers) would bemoan the crossover appeal of a book for young readers. In fact, so much of the children’s book market is dependent on the large numbers of adults with disposable income to keep those sales figures healthy. It has always been the great paradox of children’s literature that (with few exceptions, most notably S.E. Hinton, who wrote The Outsiders when she was still a teenager) these books are written by adults for children.

What Ursula Nordstrom so famously celebrated (and fiercely defended) in the books she published was the notion that children know what they like more than the “dull finished adults” in their lives. It’s an idea that still scandalizes grownups that are unwilling to consider the myriad ways in which they try to control what children enjoy in books, much in the same way we try (often in vain) to control how they behave. It’s an argument as old as children’s literature itself. In a book for young readers, who really decides what’s funny, sad, or important in “controversial” books like Captain Underpants or And Tango Makes Three? These were questions UN faced in the 1950s and her responses reflect the unflappable trust and confidence she placed in her “genius” creators and, most especially, the young readers they served.

In her February 9, 1954 letter to Harper & Brothers West Coast salesman, Jim Blake, (Marcus, 1998) UN highlights the trust required between author and editor. But most crucially, she upholds the still radical idea, that adults can and should trust kids to know what they like in a book. Writing about Ruth Krauss and Crocket Johnson’s How to Make an Earthquake,
UN reassures Blake:

“She [Krauss] knows something we don’t know…and most grown-ups don’t know…As an editor…I respect her instinct and her final judgments and when she decides that there is nothing more she can honestly do to a book I have to respect her knowledge and trust her. Because she is the one with the talent—and I’m only someone who recognizes and loves creative talent.”

Ever the risk taker (and when isn’t trust a risky business?) UN admired the determination of her authors and artists to chart new territory:

“She doesn’t do the same thing over and over again and if she ever starts she won’t continue to be Ruth Krauss. She’ll always be good but when she stops blazing new trails…she won’t be the writer she is now.”

Then, in a masterful stroke, the famed editrix coalesces what the whole business of children’s publishing is about: growth.

“Krauss books will not charm those sinful adults who sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy maladjustments. That is a sin and I meet it all the time. But there are some adults who don’t sift their reactions to children’s books through their own messy maladjustments and I guess those are the ones who will love and buy Krauss.”

This is the unspoken agreement between editor-author-reader that UN laid claim to before a love of children’s books by adults was so widely accepted. That the book would find its best child reader, and, if it was a Really Good Children’s Book, delight the toughest critic, the child herself. She intuited that pushing boundaries at the author/editor level was the best hope for bringing the freedom and joy of reading to childhood because childish imaginations are by definition, boundless. Not every book will touch every child, but certainly, for every book, there is at least an audience of one and reaching the right reader with the right book at the right time was (and remains) worth the chance taken by all parties involved.