The recent deaths of Charlotte Zolotow and Frances Foster have me thinking about the genealogy of books for young readers—for we are experiencing the end of an era in publishing.
Back in the late 1980s I saw an ad for an editor of the “Land and People” series—a middle grade set of books on the nations and cultures of the world. I applied for and landed the job at what was then Harper & Row. Charlotte Zolotow, whose career in books for young readers stretched back to the 1930s, headed the fabled children’s department. I knew Charlotte through the books she had authored that I had read as a child, and through her former husband, Maurice Zolotow, who was part of the same theater world as my parents. Charlotte was a direct connection to Margaret Wise Brown, to Crockett Johnson, to the great classic children’s books and their creators. Among my peers at Harper were Laura Godwin, now VP and Publisher, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers; Sally Doherty, who was in charge of the “I Can Read” series at Harper, and now also at Holt; Katherine Tegen, who has an imprint at HarperCollins; Caitlyn Dlouhy, a VP at Simon & Schuster; and Nancy Feresten, who has a similarly senior position at National Geographic. We all did well, but something crucial that shaped us is missing in our world now.
Though I had little direct contact with Charlotte, I felt her presence. On my way to various conferences, I would run into the (also) great and famed Margaret K. McElderry. Charlotte, Margaret, Jean Karl, and Dorothy Briley—all creators of modern books for children and teenagers—groomed a whole generation of editors. One wonderful day, I enjoyed a long conversation with Frances Foster, who clearly reflected that same tradition—in her understanding of authors, readers, and the art and craft of creating books.
What was it that these greats had in common? What did they show us and share with us? In a word, “grace.” Charlotte, in particular, had a light touch, but behind everything she said was depth, artistry, and discretion. The same with Frances—her insights worked the perfect judo to change a conversation, a manuscript, a drawing.
Charlotte died last November and Frances passed away on June 17th of this year. Now that generation of giants is gone. Where is that sense of lineage and connection that meant so much to us? I mourn our mentors, the heritage they carried with them to books for children and teens, and the sense of tradition that grounded our work in theirs. Perhaps younger editors and authors will catch a hint of that past through those who of us who were fortunate to know and work with these greats. But for most, William C. Morris is the name of an award, a symposium, not a marketing genius whose desk sported a mountain of pink phone message memos. Leonard Marcus has captured much of this history in books and articles. But I miss that guiding strength, that light touch grounded in deep understanding, and that sense of grace that blessed us all.
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