In Memoriam

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August 12, 2012 by jilltatara

When Maurice Sendak died on May 8th at the age of 83, from complications of a stroke, it was as if a relative had died—  a distant uncle who you don’t see very often, but is so immensely fun to hang out with when he comes for a visit.  To this day I read his books and love his writing and illustration style.    His work has been a constant in my life since I was four.  Sendak had wit and a great sense of the absurd, but he did not shy away from examining the dark side of things.  He seemed to trust kids and their ability to handle topics that weren’t necessarily sweet and happy.    I appreciated that trust then and I still do.

Less than three months later, on July 12th, Else Holmelund Minarik died at the age of 91.   I was sad to hear the news, but so thankful that I had discovered her book, “Little Bear”, when I started school.   I was kind of a clingy little kid, and being away from my mom for the first time when I went to school was very difficult.  Kindergarten – without my mom and with all these new, strange kids and teachers – was a very frightening place.  On the first day of school, the teacher took us on a tour.   We were shown the library and it was there I found “Little Bear”,  my first favorite book,  written by Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  I think the warmth and sweetness of the book, and the fact that it was about a bear and his mom, really helped me through those first scary months of separation.  I was only in a half day kindergarten class, but that half day seemed like forever. I felt like Minarik had held my hand during that scary year of kindergarten, and helped me through to the oh-so-grown-up world of first grade.

Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” was another favorite book I discovered on subsequent trips to that school library.  The creatures and the landscape in those illustrations were so exotic. I was completely fascinated and reread it every chance I got.  I would alternate between those two books, getting a little freaked out by the wild things, and then going back to Mama and Little Bear to be comforted and made to feel safe and secure.

Jean Craighead George was another luminary who died this year, on May 15th, at the age of 92.  I did not have a close relationship with her books.  In fact,   I hadn’t read anything by her.  After reading her obituaries, I went straight to the library to get the Julie trilogy (“Julie of the Wolves”, “Julie”, and “Julie’s Wolf Pack”) and then I read the Mountain trilogy (“My Side of the Mountain”, “On The Far Side of the Mountain”, and “Frightful’ s Mountain”).  Her love and respect for nature, as well as the independence and inner strength of her characters, are wonderful things to experience and I wish I had discovered her work ages ago.  I could have really used it.  Her lessons of patience and resolve were much needed in my impatient and undisciplined early years.  But, I guess, in discovering great books, it truly is better late than never.

I realized while reading the obituaries and articles about these writers that they all had worked with – and in some cases, had gotten their start with – Ursula Nordstrom.  She was editor of children’s books at Harper and Row from 1940 to 1973, and died in 1988 at the age of 78.  She discovered  and nurtured so many of the biggest stars in the kid lit galaxy. Her biography “Dear Genius: The Letters Of Ursula Norstrom” chronicles her career.  If you have any interest at all in children’s books, I urge you to read it.  The American Library Association should have an annual commemorative holiday on her birthday— Ursula Nordstrom Day.

In 1948,  a book buyer for F.A.O. Schwarz introduced Norstrom to the store’s new window dresser, Maurice Sendak.  It was Norstrom who led Sendak to his first children’s book illustration job in 1951, and it was she who brought Elsa Minarik’s text and Maurice Sendak’s illustrations together for the “Little Bear” series.

When Else Minarik was working as a first grade teacher in Commack, Long Island, she realized that, other than the “Dick and Jane” series, there were very few books that were written for the emergent reader.  She decided to write her own book, which turned out to be “Little Bear”.  Ursula Nordstrom heard about this story and went to Commack to meet with Else, reportedly even typing up the handwritten manuscript for her.  “Little Bear” was the first in the “I Can Read” series from Harper and Row.

Jean Craighead George was already an established writer when she met Nordstrom.    George went to Nordstrom’s office and told her that she wanted to write a book about a girl who communicates with wolves.  Nordstrom liked the idea and offered George a contract and an advance, before George had even started writing the book.  The book was “Julie of the Wolves” and went on to win the Newbery award in 1973.

I appreciate Nordstrom’s instinct for spotting great books in the making, and the talents of these three authors that have enriched the lives of so many children.  To my very old friends who touched my heart and inspired me, to my new friend who taught me things I still needed to know, and to the editor who helped them along the way, I say a very warm, profound thank you.

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