SOL: On Meeting Ursula Nordstrom

I took a circuitous route to the classroom. Although I always knew I wanted to be a teacher and writer, I considered other career options along the way, including interior decorator. However, when I graduated with my A.S. in 1980, jobs in this field were few and far between. Desperate for a job, I started working as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. In my mind, this was a temporary situation. I would find my dream job soon.

As the saying goes, everything is temporary. My stint at the doctor’s office only lasted fourteen years. But it turned out to be a good training ground for teaching. Dealing with parents is nothing compared to patients! I also met some pretty interesting people over the years, including William Styron. But one encounter I will never forget was with Ursula Nordstrom.

Ursula Nordstrom was, in the words of Maria Papova, “a fearless custodian of the child’s world and imaginative experience.”  An editor at Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) for many years, she edited classics such as Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and Where the Wild Things Are. When Ms. Nordstrom came into our office, I was writing terrible picture book manuscripts on a weekly basis, and for me, it was as if the patron saint of all I aspired to had just walked in the door.

Of course, there are rules of professionalism that have to be followed, so I greeted her calmly and asked her to have a seat. She chose a seat quite close to the window, which was a little unnerving. We were very busy that day: the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, charts had to be typed, (Yes, typed, as on a typewriter. This was in the mid-80s.) and other patients needed attention.

During one lull in the action, she looked over at me and said, “You handle everything very well.” (Or something like that.)

In that brief moment I wanted to say, “I write picture books, too!” But of course I didn’t. I thanked her, and then answered the phone again.

Ms. Nordstrom didn’t return to our office, and passed away soon after this brief encounter. If you’re not familiar with her work, Leonard Marcus gave the world of children’s literature a gift when he published Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (HarperCollins, 2000). Included in the book is correspondence between Nordstrom and E.B. White, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Margaret Wise Brown, among many, many others. I read Dear Genius when it was first published and was inspired by Nordstrom’s wit, intelligence, and compassion. Do yourself a favor and read this book. Spend time with “a deeply lovable spirit” who helped create the world of children’s literature as we know it today.

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and each Tuesday throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

6 thoughts on “SOL: On Meeting Ursula Nordstrom

  1. You had me yelling, “ASK HER TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT!” at the computer, Catherine. LOL! What a fun memory and I learned about your past. Who knew?! I’ll have to slice about my prior career. Will keep that a secret for now. Wink, wink! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m definitely going to check out this book. She sounds like an amazing woman and it was fun to read about your encounter with her. Once again my “budget” takes a hit after reading your slice!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful slice to learn more about you (14 years! a receptionist?) and about Ursula Nordstrom. And I feel your pull back to your old self wishing you had said something.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love Dear Genius! One of my favorite books–and one I should revisit and reread. I laughed out loud imagining your urge to say “I write picture books too!” in response to her compliment. What a wonderful slice–and I hope other readers will seek out this delightful book now.

    Liked by 1 person

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