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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


By Christine Rhodeback Kohler

Ursula Nordstrom. senior vice president and publisher of Harper & Row from 1940-1979, didn’t address me as “Dear Genius”, but she was kind enough to write a two-page typed letter to this sophomore in high school who dreamed of growing up and becoming a published author.

I found this dictated typed letter buried in a box of old writings. I still can’t believe how naïve I was at fifteen years old that I had no idea I was writing to one of the most knowledgeable and respected editors in juvenile book publishing. I am even more astounded that Ms. Nordstrom took the time to answer my request for information, especially considering my research topic was obviously too broad. Ah, the advantages of hindsight.

Or, could Ms. Nordstrom possibly have had the foresight that I was sincere in my question? Sincere enough to grow up and become a published author in children’s literature?

Thanks, Ms. Nordstrom, belatedly, for not addressing your letter to me, “Dear Dummy.” Your advice to me was timeless.

[The following is Ursula Nordstrom’s letter to me.]

January 6, 1969

Dear Miss Rhodeback:

Thank you for your inquiry about publishing children’s books. …

We actually have very few requirements or “procedures” we adhere to in accepting manuscripts. The acceptance of a book project depends entirely on the creativity of the author or artist. We look for original ideas, exciting concepts or styles, and material that will appeal immediately to children or young people.

As you can imagine, it is not easy to find just the right author or illustrator. Occasionally we find new manuscripts only after a long search and many discussions with librarians, educators, and other people involved with children. Our editors and sales and promotion staffs attend many library conferences, workshops, and similar meetings, which give them an opportunity to speak with children’s librarians. We sometimes receive requests of suggestions from them about books they would like us to publish. A suggestion may result directly in a book, but more accurately we are guided in our overall publishing program by the sum of what we have learned and are learning.

Often we spend many months persuading certain authors that they should try to write a book for young people. Frequently this can result in a provocative and unusual book. Occasionally, however, we discover an exciting “unsolicited” manuscript, sent to us by an unknown author. As we receive several thousand “unsolicited” manuscripts each year, it is always a delight to find one we would like to publish.

It is difficult to say precisely what factors affect our decision to publish a picture book, for instance. Our primary consideration is the person for whom the book is intended, the child. If a manuscript is well written and if we think it will appeal to children, there is a good chance that we will publish it. Its possible reception by children’s book reviewers does not affect our decision at all. Many of our best and most successful picture books were written and illustrated by people who were unknown when these books were first published. And many of the most successful received few good reviews initially.

We have always believed we should publish books about life as it is, and we are continuing to do so as the problems life poses for children change. Most publishers probably would say the same. The difference today, as opposed to the publishing of 15 years ago, for instance, is not that more books are being published to answer problems (there have always been books that answer problems and fill needs) but that teachers, librarians, and – most important – children are at last beginning to discover the books and make use of them.

Thank you again for writing to me. I send you best wishes for a successful research paper.

Yours sincerely,

Ursula Nordstrom

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