Review of Good Books for Bad Children, written by Beth Kephart, illustrated by Chloe Bristol

Good Books for Bad Children

The Genius of Ursula Nordstrom

written by Beth Kephart
illustrated by Chloe Bristol

anne schwartz books, 2023. 44 pages.
Review written October 26, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

Good Books for Bad Children is a picture book biography of one of the giants of children’s literature — Ursula Nordstrom, the editor behind hundreds of classics.

The book begins with some spreads about her lonely childhood, early fondness for books, and time in boarding school. Then she couldn’t afford college and got a clerk job in the textbook department at Harper & Brothers publishers. But that led to meeting the head of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls in the cafeteria. And that led to becoming her assistant. And that led to becoming the head of the department four years later in 1940. And that led to many fabulous children’s books being created over the next decades.

The author doesn’t give us a list of books she edited. (I would have liked one in the back, but it surely would have taken up too much space.) Instead, she keeps it interesting for child readers and gives us a story behind the publication of several classics: encouraging Crockett Johnson about Harold and the Purple Crayon, listening to the first line of Goodnight Moon on the phone, laughing with Ruth Krauss over lines for A Hole Is to Dig, and more.

Here’s my favorite spread in that section:

Sometimes Ursula would find a way
to help her writers and artists end their stories.
Like when Maurise Sendak
came to her with a tale about a boy named Max
who goes on a wild stomp of an adventure.

The problem?
Maurice didn’t know how to get Max back home.

“Well, why did Max want to go home?” Ursula asked and asked again.

“Well, he wanted to be where someone loved him best of all,
but he couldn’t really say that,” Maurice said at last.

“Why not?” Ursula asked.

It was the perfect question,
which led to the perfect ending
for Where the Wild Things Are.

I also love the way the author gets across Ursula Nordstrom’s attitude that children need all kinds of books, because there are all kinds of children out there. Indeed, she worked to make good books for bad children.

I was already a fan of Ursula Nordstrom because of reading Dear Genius, a book of her letters collected by Leonard Marcus. I’m happy that now children can learn about this lovely person who made a big difference in the world.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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