R.I.P. Charlotte Zolotow

mr.rabbit R.I.P. Charlotte Zolotow

illustration by Maurice Sendak, from Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present.

Former publisher of children’s books at HarperCollins and immortal author of picture books Charlotte Zolotow has died at the age of 98. As an editor and publisher she was quite a force, bringing us such revelations as The Pigman and Weetzie Bat; as an author, she is without peer in her particular realm: the quiet but intensely emotional picture book, my favorite examples being Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present and The Summer Night. Her William’s Doll became a vade mecum for a revolution.

I first met Charlotte in 1986, at ALA’s Midwinter conference in Chicago. I had eviscerated a YA novel by her daughter Crescent Dragonwagon in an SLJ column, and Harper’s Bill Morris tracked me down and told me that Charlotte wanted to talk to me. In her hotel suite. Right now, if possible. She was sitting very regally in an arm chair, and the only place for me to sit was at her feet. I was quaking, although already in complete admiration of her tactics, and she was very disarming, telling me how much she loved the voice in Crescent’s novel (which, gossip had it, was her daughter’s Mommie Dearest) and how she loved my voice, too, and did I think I could write a novel? For her? GENIUS. Luckily, I was saved from any further interrogation, because at that point the entire 1986 Newbery committee walked in to tell Charlotte that Sarah, Plain and Tall had won the Medal.

In tribute, we’ve collected two essays Charlotte wrote for the Horn Book as well as one Crescent (we’ve long since made up) wrote about her mother for us last year. Goodbye, Great Lady.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. KT Horning says:

    Roger, how is it we have known each other all these years and you have never told me that story? It has the happiest ending ever — except for your lost career as a YA novelist. You might have been Francesca Lia Block!

  2. KT Horning says:

    Oh, and a question: was Bill there for the whole thing?

  3. Fabulous! Thanks for sharing it. I laughed out loud and made a mental note to re-read all her books in the same split second.

  4. Nancy Werlin says:

    Crescent’s THE YEAR IT RAINED? Back when I was working on my first novel in the early 90s, my mentor, middle-grade writer Athena Lord, gave me a copy of it to show me “how very much was possible” re sexuality in a YA novels. At the time I wondered if a little extra space was given to Charlotte Z’s daughter and how very much might NOT be possible for someone else. In any case, you should read THE YEAR IT RAINED again, Roger. It’s flawed, sure, but its intensity and honestly shimmer. I read it again a few years ago, because I remembered it vividly where I did not remember many another novel that I studied at the time. It also sure did have a “mommy dearest” aspect, and all the more credit to Charlotte Zolotow for taking that in stride.

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Yes KT, Bill was there. Somebody should write a novel about those two. Or an opera.

    Nancy, I haven’t read The Year It Rained in years but I was thinking it might fit right in with current YA. Does it?

  6. The Year It Rained was published by Judith Whipple, at Macmillan, not by Charlotte. The Macmillan legal department made both my parents vet it and sign releases; Charlotte asked for a few changes (which I made); my father did not. I still think it may be the most honest writing I have ever done, and I don’t think it would ever have been seen as Mommie Dearest-ish had not Charlotte been so extraordinarily, perhaps one-dimensionally, revered in the field. Neither she nor I thought the picture is unsympathetic; but it is complex and conflicted, as was she and, until her last years, our relationship.

    This is not to say that she was unambivalent about it. She loved the writing; of the content, what she said, raising one eyebrow, was always, “One of these days *I’m* going to write my own novel and then you’ll see.”

    Going through her papers now, I come across dozens of notes for beginnings of novels, which was what she always told the family was what she really wanted to write. And countless short stories.

    Carl Jung said that the unfulfilled dreams of the parents are the single biggest determining factor in shaping the children. I don’t know if I agree. Nor do I know what I feel about all those notes for novels and the many, many short stories for adults, few published. But my god, she was prolific, disciplined, organized and ambitious — all qualities *besides* her remarkable sensitivity to the very young, her gift in writing for them (from the childlike part of herself, which she retained as a kind of fragility and need rarely shown to anyone outside the family). And of course her uncanny ability to help writers pull their own stories out and find their own voices.

    I worked with her as an editor only once, when Paul Zindel on a book, since he was her author. From that moment until her much later years, I wished periodically that that — author-editor — had been our relationship. I think it would have had more joy and less tension for both of us.

    Thankfully, when she became less emotionally needy of me specifically (though, paradoxically, much more in need objectively) we were able to reach the state that we always wanted all along, as I wrote in this piece: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/lives-they-loved/?story=340

    And here is Natalie Babbitt’s review of Year, which went on to be published in Great Britain and four foreign language editions. http://www.nytimes.com/1985/11/10/books/children-s-books-love-and-learn-to-bear-it.html . Available as an e-book these days, too.

    And Roger and I are friends!

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