Friday, May 23, 2008

Toodle-oo to Sarah

Sarah's talked this week about herself, her cats, her book, maps, and biscuits and bacon. Before saying toodle-oo today, because editors are such an important part of the book-making process, she wanted to share her thoughts about Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary director of the HarperCollins children's books division from 1940 to 1973.

I didn't really understand what book editors do, or how they feel about their work, until my own editor sent me Dear Genius, which is a book of letters from Ursula Nordstrom to many of the authors she worked with, including E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Maurice Sendak, M.E. Kerr, Russell and Lillian Hoban, etc, etc, etc. UN had her hand in so many of the best-loved children's books published during those years; she had a vision, and she stuck to it.

The book was a revelation, really. Publishing is big business, right? HarperCollins, as far as I know, is owned by a huge multinational corporation. And we writers are aware of the tension between the business and the book. We love our own books, and we worry about whether they're going to sell well enough to make our publisher happy. This tension is nothing new; UN felt it, and referred angrily at the end of her career to "those tiny, tiny persons who live on the well-known bottom line."

As director, UN had to be aware of the bottom line, but she quite often fell in love with a book or with a piece of artwork. "There are a lot of us in publishing," she said, "who are just as romantic, or perhaps more romantic, about books than many of the authors and artists." Reading a book sent to her by one of her authors, she describes herself: "I sit here in shimmering happiness over such a lovely manuscript."

Once an author or artist was 'hers,' she became his or her champion. She discovered Maurice Sendak when he was designing shop windows at FAO Schwartz! She defended his controversial In the Night Kitchen (in the pictures, the little boy is naked) against prudish readers who wanted to censor the book and described one of her responses as leaving 'blood all over the keyboard.' She describes herself as "one who has fought, bled, and practically died to do good books whether or not they were going to be immediately profitable."

Sometimes her 'geniuses' didn't produce the work they were contracted to do. UN was a master of gentle flattering persuasion—dear genius, the world needs your beautiful book! As deadlines pass, she prods gently, and sometimes with dramatic desperation. Kay Thompson was supposed to do another Eloise book for Harper, but she didn't turn the book in on time, and stopped answering letters or phone calls. UN wrote, "I wonder if I'm dead and I don't realize it, and that's why you can't get in touch with me." And Edward Gorey made her nuts! After repeated delays, she said she hoped Harper could publish the book "before a truck knocks me down and kills me."

She was passionate about her books and her artists and authors. And I think that tradition in publishing is still alive. Editors still buy books because they fall in love with them. Thanks to them, readers can find books that they, too, can fall in love with.

Have you ever read a book that made you feel "shimmering happiness"? I bet its editor felt that way, too.

We'll leave you pondering that question while we thank Sarah for her enlightening post on editors and for a divine debut week. Best of luck, Sarah!

P.S. Everyone be sure to check our HarperCollins's new website for THE MAGIC THIEF, it just launched.


Jessica Burkhart said...

Every post was fun, Sarah! I'm off to order DEAR GENIUS. :)

TJBrown said...

What a wonderful blog post!