|Charlotte in Madison in 1997|
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 TeachingBooks.net 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.
How like Charlotte to comfort us in a time like this, with knowing that she has found herself in that lovely soft enfolding blackness."Where was I before I was born?" he asked.But he felt the answer,he had been part of that strangetrembling huge blacknesswith no light and no soundno 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 beginningno endhe was it and it was Ben.