What Would Ursula Nordstrom Do? Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone

nordstrom

Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is something none of us like to do—especially, as writers.  But what if?  What if your plot takes that turn?  Or you delete a chapter or question the motive of your character?  What if you plunge out of picture books and venture toward middle grade or YA?  What if?

And this is when my mind starts to wander toward the great Ursula Nordstrom.  UN, as her friends and colleagues called her, was a tour de force in transforming twentieth century children’s literature.  With her vision of “good books for bad children,”[1] she fostered the careers of so many great writers and illustrators: Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, Ruth Krauss, Crockett Johnson, Shel Silverstein, and so many others.

Her tenure at Harper spanned five decades, from 1936 to 1973, where in 1940 she became the head of the department of Harper Books for Boys and Girls.  In 1970, she became senior vice president of Harper and Row and publisher of Junior Books.  She stepped down in 1973 to become a senior editor of her own imprint, Ursula Nordstrom Books, until 1980.  She died on October 11, 1988 of ovarian cancer.

She had never gone to college,[2] was not a teacher, nor a librarian.  And she didn’t have children of her own.  When asked how she was qualified to work with children, she responded, “Well, I am a former child and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”[3]

This is not to say that Ursula Nordstrom wasn’t insecure about her work.  But she took risks.

Can you imagine what children’s literature would look like today if we didn’t have Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, The Carrot Seed, or The Giving Tree?

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a number of rewrites.  In one of my picture books, I’ve waffled back and forth about the ending.  Play it safe or run with it.  And that’s when I thought of Ursula?  What would she do?  And I found my answer.

Stepping out of one’s comfort zone, for whatever it may be, is not easy.   It’s not easy rewriting a novel, let alone a paragraph.  But greatness may be just around the corner.

Sometimes it can’t hurt to ask, “What would Ursula Nordstrom do?”  What are you going to do?


[1] Marcus, Leonard S., ed. Dear Genuis: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, xviii, HarperCollinsPublishers, 1998.  Print.

[2] “Nordstrom would later say that it was not just any college that she had never attended, but Bryn Mawr.” Id. at xxi.  Being a Bryn Mawr alum, I can’t help but smile and think she’d fit right in.  I could so see her in Thomas Great Hall at coffee hour chatting away with Katharine Hepburn.

[3] Id. at xxii.

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6 comments on “What Would Ursula Nordstrom Do? Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone

  1. Cathy, So very true! A wonderful children’s librarian introduced me to the book when I first started writing.

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