February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Life of Book Editor and Author Charlotte Zolotow Celebrated


Charlotte’s daughter Crescent Dragonwagon and author Robert Lipsyte. Photos courtesy of Rocco Staino.

Librarians, authors, and members of the children’s book publishing world gathered at the Judson Memorial Church on May 27 for a memorial celebrating the life, love, and work of Charlotte Zolotow. Zolotow, who died on November 19, 2013, was a major force in children literature as a book editor, poet, and award-winning author.

Many notables in the kid lit world, including K. T. Horning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, attended the service. The school’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) annually celebrates Zolotow’s career as an editor with the Charlotte Zolotow’s Lecture, and it honors her career as a writer with the Charlotte Zolotow Award, for outstanding picture book text. The first winner of that award, Vera Williams, was also in attendance.

Zolotow, a prolific author in her own right, wrote more than 70 books for young readers, including The Quarreling Book (Harper & Row, 1963), illustrated by Arnold Lobel; When I Have a Son (Harper & Row, 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 death, AIDS, and other difficult topics.

Caldecott medalist Emily Arnold McCully and Hans Christian Anderson Award nominee Vera Williams.

Caldecott medalist Emily Arnold McCully and Hans Christian Anderson Award nominee Vera Williams.

Early in her writing career, Zolotow collaborated with two iconic illustrators—H. A. Rey and a young Maurice Sendak. Rey, the creator of the “Curious George” books, illustrated Zolotow’s 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.

Noted sports journalist and YA author Robert Lipsyte served as master of ceremonies. He caught the audience off guard when he said he “hated Charlotte Zolotow.” He clarified that he initially hated her because of her editorial edits and her telephone calls; however, upon meeting her, he was charmed by his editor.

“She was beautiful and composed and not a Sendak troll.”

In 2001, Lipsyte received the Margaret A. Edward’s Award, which is given for “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” He is best known for his books The Contender (Harper, 1967) and its sequels The Brave (HarperCollins, 1991) and The Chief (HarperCollins, 1993). Lipsyte thanked her for making him a better writer.

Zolotow’s son Stephen recalled living in New York’s Greenwich Village near the Judson church. He gave the group a glimpse into his mother’s irreverence by mentioning a photo of him on grassy patch near Washington Square next to a sign stating—“Keep off the grass.”

During the service, Zolotow’s deep commitment to exposing young readers to social justice became evident with her expressed belief that no topic is off limits because of a reader’s age. Regina Kelly, a librarian who worked as Zolotow’s assistant from 1995 to 2002, told SLJ that her boss strongly believed that “children’s books should not be ghetto-ized”.

Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan was introduced as “the brightest star on Charlotte’s shelf of authors.” During her comments, MacLachlan disclosed two shocking facts. She lost her Newbery Medal, which she won for Sarah, Plain and Tall (Harper & Row, 1985), and she had been recently diagnosed as being “legally blind.” The latter, MacLachlan shared, made her nervous about speaking, but she went on to say that in a dream the night before, Zolotow told her “the words are in your head, not on the paper.” After she recalled several pieces of Zolotow’s sound advice, McLachlan closed with her most important advice—“Listen to the children. They know everything.”

Zolotow’s daughter, Crescent Dragonwagon (formerly Ellen Zolotow), closed the memorial with her mother’s advice to her when she was close to the end:

“Since I have had all the days, and they were wonderful, I want you to do the same.”

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.