Ursula Nordstrom and the Queer History of the Children’s Book

By Kelly BlewettAugust 28, 2016

Ursula Nordstrom and the Queer History of the Children’s Book
IMAGINE TWO WOMEN, dressed in tweed, sitting on the steps of the New York Public Library in 1951. It is Children’s Book Week, and a celebratory tea is commencing inside the sumptuous stone building. The women belong inside, but they cannot get in because one of them, after searching through her purse, could not find her ticket. When the women were informed that they would be seated after the ticketed guests, they decided to hold their own Book Week meeting right away, sitting on the front steps facing Fifth Avenue between the library lions. And so they did. They didn’t really like the New York Public Library so much, anyway.

As detailed in Leonard Marcus’s Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon (1992), these women were the ticketless Margaret Wise Brown, author of The Runaway Bunny (1942), Goodnight Moon (1947), and dozens of other books, and her indignant editor at Harper & Brothers, Ursula Nordstrom. Nordstrom had other reasons to avoid the library tea. She held a cool, distanced regard for the founding librarian Anne Carroll Moore, who lingered at library events years after she formally retired in 1941 (the children’s reading room of the library is still named after her). Moore, a very popular reviewer of children’s books who kept a stamp in her library desk that said “Not Recommended,” had given bad reviews to some of Nordstrom’s projects (including, in 1952, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web). Nordstrom never forgot. “Forgive me for talking stupidly today,” she wrote to an acquaintance. “I was at my worst, but I blame it on Anne Carroll Moore.”

Beyond bad reviews, Nordstrom held against Moore the resentment of a new generation pushing against the old. Moore, Nordstrom thought, wanted books to teach good behavior, while Nordstrom wanted books to speak to the inner life — in all its terrifying complexity — of children, whom she referred to as “brand new people.” Perceiving the publishing world as full of “bad books for good children,” Nordstrom sought to establish a new kind literature: “good books for bad children.” Or, as I would gloss it, good books for real children. The list of classics published under her auspices speaks to the success of this vision: Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964), Charlotte Zolotow’s William’s Doll (1972), and a slate of YA novels, including the first to openly acknowledge same-sex attraction, John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (1969). Nordstrom didn’t believe in simple answers and pat solutions. She wanted to be charmed, carried away, spoken truth to, in books — even if she was, as she put it, just a “deadly dull adult.”

Nordstrom was also queer. Although it seems she rarely mixed her private life with her professional one, a number of the most famous writers whom she published were queer, too, including Brown, Fitzhugh, and Sendak. None of these writers identified themselves as specifically gay writers (in fact, Sendak waited to reveal his own sexuality until his parents were dead), yet the pattern is striking. “There’s a silenced history,” writes children’s literature historian Philip Nel, of “the many prominent children’s literature authors who were GLBTQ.” He concludes, “Someone should write a book.” What I want to suggest here is that this history extends beyond the writers to their editors, and that there are a number of books already written that speak to this history, including The Secret Language, the only published book written by the great editor herself.

Arrangements to publish The Secret Language took place in New York in late 1959 while Nordstrom was abroad with friend and book buyer Frances Christie (it was Christie who, nearly 10 years prior, had arranged for an introduction between Nordstrom, then in her 30s, and the unknown illustrator Maurice Sendak, then 22). Charlotte Zolotow, who worked for Harper & Brothers and who would eventually take over the children’s department, cabled Nordstrom in Athens that Harper & Brothers wanted to publish the book. How exactly Nordstrom responded to the news is not known. But she downplayed the book to her authors, referring to it as “an unpretentious, simple, rather detailed account” of a little girl’s experiences and emotions while going to boarding school. “I hope little girls will like it at least moderately,” she wrote, “but it isn’t anything that will impress any adult, I am quite sure.”

She was being modest. Her book, published in 1960, received excellent reviews, and a reprint was issued in 1988, with the same illustrations as the original (pen-and-ink drawings by the artist Mary Chalmers). What I see in The Secret Language is a gesture toward relationships between young friends that can’t be easily categorized and that hint toward queerness. In some cases, the hint seems barely hidden at all. Witness the frontispiece to the 1988 reprint, which focuses on one of the words in the girls’ secret language: leebossa.

Protagonist Martha later defines the word for best friend Victoria: “Now, leebossa is for when you like something. When something is just lovely or when something works out just right, it is leebossa. For anything especially nice, you can say leeleeleeleebossa. But that’s only for something really wonderful. Understand?” Without overly psychologizing the text, I want to suggest that this is a broad wink — that leebossa may be seen as code for lesbian.

There are other signs, too, that these two girls aren’t like the other girls in the story: Martha’s brashness and masculinity is paired with the demureness of Victoria’s femininity, a contrast emphasized by Chalmer’s illustrations, one of which features Martha and Victoria on a playground. Victoria is in the foreground, facing the reader, dressed neatly in a skirt and sweater and sitting on a swing. Martha is in the background, where she watches Victoria from a seated position at the bottom of a slide. Her hand rests on her hip and her skirt is tucked around her legs, as though she’s trying to turn the skirt into pants.

Gender is presented as both omnipresent and unfathomable. In one passage, Victoria tries to explain to Martha how she sees gender in colors in numbers. Numbers one, three, five, seven, and eight are girls; numbers two, four, six, and nine are boys. Martha didn’t like it: “It doesn’t make any sense Vicky!” “I know it sounds silly,” Victoria admits, “But I can’t help it. I have the same thing with colors, too.” While Victoria is attentive to gendered performances, when confronted with a boy who is interested in her at the end of the book, she responds “ick-en-spick,” meaning disgusting. When it’s time for the girls to dress up for a Halloween costume party, the two leave behind obviously gendered choices and opt to come as matching ice-cream cones. They win the prize for “most original.”

The girls’ friendship is strongly supported by their housemother, who lets them sneak out together in the morning to play. When she sneaks off school property to visit them one morning, she suggests they plant flowers behind their secret hut for the children who may use it in the future. Martha, in a typically rebellious fashion, replies: “I don’t want to plant any flowers for any dumb kids to find. We might not like them.” The text goes on: “‘No, but then again you just might. In fact, two of them might be just like you two girls,’ the housemother said slowly.” The exact meaning of the housemother’s phrase “just like you two girls” remains significantly, purposefully ambiguous. It is a signifier whose signified is left perversely out of view.

The ice-cream-cone costumes, the discussions about gender, the longing for mothers that gets turned toward each other and their housemother — these are the more slippery aspects of the book’s queerness. After all, most children’s book characters feel unique in some way; most children’s book characters distinguish themselves from their peers or seek to display their originality. Many children’s book characters are also facing, like Victoria and Martha, missing or absent parents. And yet …

Part of the intangibility comes down to the opaqueness of childhood sexuality itself. In their introduction to Over the Rainbow: Queer Children's and Young Adult Literature, Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd write that there is a “prohibition against the representation of any sexuality, much less queer sexuality, in early childhood.” The term queer also defies categorization, signifying, as the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has put it, “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” “Leebossa” might be as clear as it could get for a mainstream publisher of children’s books in 1960.

In 1980, children’s book scholar Selma Lanes put together a magnificent collection of Sendak’s work, The Art of Maurice Sendak. Nordstrom, predictably, was heavily featured. Sendak lingered over his memories of their early collaborations, saying:

I loved her on first meeting. My happiest memories, in fact, are of my earliest career, when Ursula was my confidante and best friend. She really became my home and the person I trusted most. These beginning years revolved around my trips to the old Harper offices on Thirty-third Street and being fed books by Ursula, as well as encouraged with every drawing I did. We had our disagreements, but she treated me like a hot-house flower, watered me for ten years, and hand-picked the works that were to become my permanent backlist and bread-and-butter support.

Nordstrom, too, shared a long interview with Lanes, in which she made a surprisingly inaccurate reference to Sendak’s sexuality, explaining that when she thought Sendak was interested in a young secretary who was frequently late to work, Nordstrom tried not to be too hard on her since, “for all I knew, she was the future Mrs. Sendak.”

She was not the future Mrs. Sendak. There was no future Mrs. Sendak. The details of Maurice Sendak’s private life, newly revealed in Katie Roiphe’s lovely book The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End (2016), reiterate what is already known by those in his circle — that he lived for years with a single male partner and that he assembled an alternative family that sustained him. As Roiphe’s book shows, Sendak cared deeply for Nordstrom and kept a photograph of her in his study, a photograph that later served as the basis for a portrait he painted of her. (The portrait appears on the cover of Leonard Marcus’s collection of Nordstrom’s letters.)

As close as Sendak and Nordstrom were, it seems very likely they knew about each other’s home lives, though that was a subject about which she was guarded in public. Nearly 20 years after the publication of The Secret Language, Nordstrom talked about the importance of sexually progressive literature. In the following passage, she’s referring to how she came to publish Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip:

I had for years also said that I wished somebody would write a book that would just give a hint that there could be a romantic feeling between two persons of the same sex. It happens to almost everybody when they’re growing up, a crush on a teacher or something, and they outgrow it or they don’t outgrow it. Unbeknownst to me, John Donovan wrote me a letter and said he was writing a book about the different varieties of love. And he sent me I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth The Trip.

Nordstrom’s articulation of homosexual desire in this passage is decidedly coy. She does not aim to overthrow the dominant narrative of heteronomativity but only to “give a hint” to children that there “could” be romantic feelings between two people of the same sex, that there is more of a “variety” to love than they might hear about otherwise. Later in the interview, she would refer to her decades-long partner, Mary Griffith, as “the friend with whom I live.” As such a gloss on a homosexual romantic partnership suggests, Nordstrom’s resistance to heteronormativity is clearly present, but it only goes so far.

Absent access to Nordstrom’s and Sendak’s archives, it’s impossible to know how their sexuality shaped their relationship, what they talked about, how (or whether) they saw queerness in the picture books they published together. What is known, though, is that the two shared an aesthetic predicated on a fierce recognition of the complexity of childhood. “My great curiosity is about childhood as a state of being,” Sendak said later in his interview with Lanes, “how all children manage to get through childhood from one day to the next, how they defeat boredom, fear, pain, and anxiety, and find joy.” Of his books, he remarked, “None of my books ever come to me as ideas. […] [T]hey well up. Just as dreams come to us at night, feelings come to me, and I rush to put them down.” Nordstrom believed deeply in Sendak’s approach to writing for children. Biddy Martin, writing about what it was like to read as a queer child, seems to articulate something of the vision of childhood reading that Sendak sought to create:

[L]iterature has also always engaged my curiosity about the complexities of interiors, the complexities of the very process by which the outside gets folded into an inside, and the distinction gets displaced. […] I start to wonder again at what point the infoldings of an outside become psychological processes that remain, at least to some extent, characteristics from childhood sustained over a lifetime […]

Children’s book historian Leonard Marcus, in his introduction to Nordstrom’s collected letters, writes that Nordstrom, at the recommendation of her friends, wrote a sequel to The Secret Language. Titling it The Secret Choice, she wrote the book all the way up to the last chapter, but she couldn’t figure out the end. She spoke of the manuscript in interviews, saying that she hoped she would find a way to finish it. But she never did; instead, reports say, she burned the manuscript. Marcus mildly writes that Nordstrom’s decision to “burn” the manuscript lacked her “trademark sense of fun,” but I think this oversimplification glosses over the violence of Nordstrom’s struggle and her ultimate retreat. Though we don’t have a copy of the manuscript, the plot likely focused on Victoria’s “choosing” a crush and the pivotal ending would have outed her as a lesbian.

Still, Nordstrom’s mark on children’s literature remains, though much more needs to be said about it, to make its role more visible. One scholar, recently writing about Harriet the Spy, made clear the queer connections beneath the surface of the book’s publication history: “Harriet is the imaginative product of one lesbian, partially based on another lesbian writer.” What is effaced from this history is a third lesbian, Nordstrom, who ushered the work into publication. That book, famous for its unconventional child heroine who arms herself with a notebook and determines to become a writer, also had at its core an unconventional reader — the nursemaid, Ole Golly, who is an alternative mother figure to Harriet, and whose absence prompts what the child psychologist in the book refers to as “Harriet’s regression,” a series of misbehaviors that make up most of the plot. Ole Golly returns at the novel’s close, however, to admonish Harriet to “get cracking” on her writing. She says to the young writer:

If you are ever going to be a writer it is time you got cracking. You are eleven years old and haven’t written a thing but notes. Make a story out of some of those notes and send it to me […] Remember that writing is to put love in the world […] You’re eleven years old which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be.

Ole Golly, in the words of children’s literature scholar Robin Bernstein, urges Harriet to “hide in plain sight” through fiction. Through Ole Golly, Fitzhugh provided “the tools queer children need to stay closeted, while restraining their integrity, until it is safe for them to come out.” One might say that, in the queer history of the children’s book, Nordstrom, the first reader for Sendak, Fitzhugh, and Brown, did something similar for them. She was their Ole Golly, the unconventional nurse who lingered over their work, who nagged at them to keep producing, who tenderly attended to the details, as she did when Maurice Sendak was trying to finish his masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are. “And at the very last minute,” she wrote to him in 1963, “we can go over the words one last time, but don’t worry about them until the pictures are done.”


Kelly Blewett is a graduate student in English at the University of Cincinnati.

LARB Contributor

Kelly Blewett teaches in the English Department of Indiana University East. She enjoys teaching writing and investigating what makes good teaching work. She has published essays on pleasure reading, children’s literature, and feedback in the writing classroom. 


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