The Editor as Midwife

It was Charlotte Zolotow, then senior editor, in the dept., who wrote me a report on the first sample pages of Harriet and said, “You have to get this writer to come in and talk. This isn’t a book, but it could be.” As I remember it the agent sent us, at first, material that really eventually became the contents of Harriet’s notebook about her classmates. I asked Charlotte to sit in with us and Louise sat sullenly, hands jammed into her pockets, while we expressed enthusiasm over what we’d seen, over her drawings, and we began to ask questions. “Why these drawings? Why these comments?” We talked for about an hour trying to draw her out. Trying to share with her our eagerness to help her expand whatever it was she had in her head and make a real book out of it. After at least an hour she looked up and said, “So you’re not really interested, are you?” (Nordstrom, 385-6)

Fitzhugh’s manuscript, initially the writings and drawings of a character later identified as Harriet, but without the framing story, was sent to legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom by Fitzhugh’s agent. This proved to be a fateful pairing. Nordstrom, along with staff members like Charlotte Zolotow (herself a children’s book writer), shepherded through the production process such groundbreaking books as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny, and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. She was known for her ability to nurture writers, and the author meeting was among her strongest tools for finding new talent. From her first meeting with Fitzhugh, described above, until their falling-out three books later, Nordstrom was an indispensable touchstone for Fitzhugh. The letters Nordstrom wrote her reveal the normal chafing of an artist against the editorial process, but also show how sensitive Nordstrom was to the pain of creativity. One scholar describes Nordstrom as “coach and fan, confessor and healer, surrogate mother and devoted friend” to her authors (Marcus, xxx); another has surmised that Nordstrom “may have been a source for Ole Golly.” (Wolf, 57).

At the time she was working on Harriet the Spy, Fitzhugh had no experience as a writer. Fitzhugh “wasn’t so sure of herself with Harriet. She knew what she wanted to do but if I
made a suggestion she didn’t take umbrage,” Nordstrom remembered years later. (Natov, 125). She also had a financial incentive to get Harriet published. Studying art and painting, she lived on a small income from her grandmother’s estate. “[T]he small advance we were able to give her on the first few pages of Harriet meant a great deal to her,” Nordstrom said. (Nordstrom, 385)

Fitzhugh’s illustrations also became an integral part of Harriet the Spy. Perhaps because Fitzhugh was more comfortable as an artist than as a writer, Nordstrom does not mention any discussions or guidance she gave regarding the pictures.

Sources:

Nordstrom, Ursula. Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

Wolf, Virginia L. Louise Fitzhugh. (New York: Twayne, 1991).

Marcus, Leonard S. “Introduction.” In Nordstrom, Ursula. Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

Natov, Roni and DeLuca, Geraldine. “Discovering Contemporary Classics: An Interview with Ursula Nordstrom.” The Lion and the Unicorn 3:1 (1979), pp. 119-135.

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