Thursday, November 21, 2013

Charlotte Zolotow, 1915-2013

Charlotte in Madison in 1997
Here at the CCBC we are still reeling from the news of the death of our dear friend, Charlotte Zolotow. She was 98 and she had lived a full life that touched the lives of so many others. But still, we will  feel her absence. We will miss her handwritten notes in green ink. We will miss her distinctive, chirpy voice. We will miss her spontaneous phone calls, which always started, "Hello, my dear. Tell me something good about Wisconsin!"

Charlotte had a special fondness for Wisconsin because she attended UW-Madison from 1933-36, where she studied English with the formidable Professor Helen C. White.  It was Professor White who first told Charlotte she was a writer, and who nurtured her talents. Charlotte once said that at the University of Wisconsin, she was taught not what to think, but how to think.

And what a thinker she became! At a time when most women, especially married women with children, did not have careers, Charlotte worked at Harper & Row as a children's book editor, under the direction of another formidable woman, Ursula Nordstrom. At Harper they worked with some of the greatest children's book authors and illustrators of the 20th century, including  Margaret Wise Brown, E. B. White, Maurice Sendak, Louise Fitzhguh, Paul Zindel, John Steptoe, M. E. Kerr, Robert Lipsyte, M. B. Goffstein, Paul Fleischman, Karla Kuskin, and Patricia MacLachlan. They didn't shy away from controversial topics -- they became the first to publish a young adult novel on a gay theme in 1969, and they continued to take risks with authors and illustrators who were pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable. Charlotte once told me she took a risk on an edgy novel, knowing that it might sell only three copies, because it was a story that needed to be told. And one of the last acquisitions she made before she retired was a quirky novel called Weetzie Bat, written by a newcomer, Francesca Lia Block.

And Charlotte herself was a writer. After Ursula Nordstrom encouraged her to try her hand at writing. The result was The Park Book, published in 1944. That launched her long career as a writer of picture books that explored the emotional landscapes of early childhood, books that still resonate with children today with their psychological truths -- so much so that they are frequently reissued with new illustrations. The art may get dated over time but her words never do.

Last spring, CCBC librarian Megan Schliesman presented a thoughtful lecture about the essence of Charlotte's writing for young children called "Feeling Back into Childhood: The Picture Books of Charlotte Zolotow." Thanks to our friends at you can now view and listen to her lecture.

The words of one of Charlotte's last picture books Who Is Ben? take on special meaning this week.
"Where was I before I was born?" he asked.
But he felt the answer,
he had been part of that strange
trembling huge blackness
with no light and no sound
no beginning and no end.

"And where will I be when I die?"
But again he felt the answer,
and he felt that lovely soft enfolding blackness...
no moon, no stars,
no beginning
no end
he was it and it was Ben.
 How like Charlotte to comfort us in a time like this, with knowing that she has found herself in that lovely soft enfolding blackness.


  1. Thank you for this touching piece. As soon as I heard about her death, I thought of the CCBC. I'm glad to be able to share Megan's lecture with others.

  2. A memory-piece about Charlotte appears on JOURNAL at