February 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Charlotte Zolotow, Distinguished Children’s Book Editor and Author, Dies at 98

Charlotte Zolotow—the distinguished children’s book editor, poet, and award-winning author—died on Tuesday, November 19, in her home in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, where she lived with her caregiver Hawa Diallo and her beloved cat Tumbleweed. Zolotow was 98, according to her daughter, children’s book author and poet Crescent Dragonwagon.

Zolotow is the author of more than 70 books for young readers, including The Quarreling Book (Harper,1963), illustrated by Arnold Lobel; When I Have a Son (Harper,1967), illustrated by Hilary Knight; and Say It! (Greenwillow,1980), illustrated by James Stevenson. During her tenure as an editor and head of the children’s division of Harper Junior Books, she brought titles to children and teens that tackled important issues, including those that touched on death, AIDS, and other difficult topics.

She also authored books that are considered groundbreaking including William’s Doll (Harper & Row, 1972). At the time of publication, Anita Silvey called William the first “liberated male child.” In its original review, School Library Journal called the title, “An excellent book about a boy named William who wants the forbidden—a doll. The long-awaited realistic handling of this theme makes it a landmark book.”

Two year later, in 1974, Zolotow’s book My Grandson Lew was one of the first picture books about death. It was named an ALA Notable Book. The famed William Pene du Bois illustrated both titles.

Early in her writing career, Zolotow collaborated with two other iconic illustrators—H.A. Rey and a young Maurice Sendak. Rey, the creator of Curious George, illustrated her debut, The Park Book (Harper, 1944), while Sendak illustrated Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (Harper & Row, 1962), the story of a young girl who asks a rabbit to help find a gift for her mother. The book received a Caldecott Honor in 1963.

Jane Yolen, children’s author and poet, tells School Library Journal that Zolotow was “one of the century’s premiere editors,” who worked with a roster of children’s literature stars including the authors Karla Kuskin, Paul Fleischman, Robert Lipsyte, Francesca Lia Block, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Mollie Hunter, M.E. Kerr, John Steptoe, Judith Viorst, Laurence Yep, and Paul Zindel.

Zolotow also edited Patricia MacLachan’s 1986 Newbery Medal-winning Sarah, Plain and Tall (Harper & Row, 1985). “My years working with Charlotte Zolotow were particularly joyful years in my writing life,” MacLachlan tells SLJ. “Charlotte was supportive, understanding and smart. I have always thought that Charlotte and I won the Newbery Medal together.”

Zolotow influenced MacLachlan’s writing even when she wasn’t there, MacLachlan says. She remembers once telling Zolotow that, “A tiny Charlotte Zolotow sat on my right shoulder when I wrote, warning me about self-indulgence and overwriting. ‘Good,’ said Charlotte. ‘She saves me time.’” Upon hearing of Zolotow’s death, MacLachlan says, “I will always miss her kindness and her sly wit, but I am glad to say she does still sit on my right shoulder.”

Zolotow was born Charlotte Shapiro, on June 26, 1915, in Norfolk, Virginia. She grew up in New York City. She married Maurice Zolotow and they had two children, Stephen and Ellen (aka Crescent Dragonwagon).

In the mid-1930s she joined Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins) where she met Ursula Nordstrom, esteemed children’s book editor. Under her guidance, Zolotow began her career at the publisher, where she was a senior editor from 1938–1944 and from 1962–1976. She became division vice president and associate publisher from 1976–1981, and later had her own imprint, Charlotte Zolotow Books. She was named publisher emerita at HarperCollins in 1991.

In 1996, her dear friend and Harper colleague Bill Morris left a bequest in Zolotow’s honor to her alma mater, The University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a result of the gift, the school’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) annually celebrates her career as an editor with the Charlotte Zolotow’s Lecture, and they honor her career as a writer with the Charlotte Zolotow Award, for outstanding picture book text.

“Charlotte was such a strong and yet gentle spirit,” says CBCC director Kathleen T. Horning. “I met her at a Harper cocktail party at the first ALA conference I ever attended and we talked about our mutual admiration for two authors: Louise Fitzhugh and Margaret Wise Brown. Charlotte had worked with both of them and it was such a thrill to talk to her about them, especially since Charlotte herself was the author of my favorite book from early childhood, But Not Billy (Harper, 1947).”

Donations in her memory can be made to the Charlotte Zolotow Fellowship, which provides a one-month annual residency for a promising or established writer of picture books or YA. Donations can be sent to The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, Eureka Springs, AK, 72632.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.