A Classic Lives Forever in the Hands of its Readers
With the recent passing of Charlotte Zolotow, I wanted to devote a blog to this extraordinary author/editor, publisher and educator and to three of her picture books that are only a reflection of the deep respect she had for her small listeners and how attuned she was to the richness and depth of their inner lives. If you’ve read any of her more than 70 books, you will immediately see that here is someone who had not forgotten the feelings of what it was like to BE a child and she shared that in her books. Here is a quote from The New York Times on her books:
Delicately, with surgical precision, they plumbed children’s interior lives, often ranging over loneliness loss, longing and other painful topics that earlier generations of children’s books had either sugar-coated or ignored outright.
And, throughout this amazing career in picture books that raised the bar, her books were illustrated over time by some of the greats in the world of illustrators. People such as Garth Williams, Maurice Sendak and William Pene du Bois were but three names whose illustrations filled the pages of her books. I chose these three because they each illustrated a Charlotte Zolotow book that resonated distinctly when my own children were small and in story hours that I did then and those that I continue to do today. They still hit the mark.
1957 – Over and Over Illustrated by Garth Williams.
How do you explain time to a child? Ms. Zolotow wisely chose the changing of the seasons to help explain the passage of time as the young girl in her book strives to understand days of the week and months of the year. Starting with Christmas and culminating in her birthday wish, celebrated around Thanksgiving, the young girl experiences the newness and pleasures of each successive season. And her birthday wish that the seasons start all over again is sure to be granted. Every child’s echo can be heard in the repeated phrase of “What comes next?” found throughout this delightful book illustrated by Garth Williams, who during his distinguished career brought the Wilder family alive in “The Little House on the Prairie” series.
1962 Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present Pictures by Maurice Sendak.
This Caldecott Honor Book and the young girl in search of a birthday gift for her mother is a beautiful book. Each of us can remember how we wanted to choose something very special for our mothers to show them our love. Ms. Zolotow infuses the wryly-amusing presence of a rabbit into the young girl’s search for the perfect gift for mom. This rabbit may be indeed be of the imaginary figure; a sort of Harvey-like character from the play by Mary Chase, that the young girl, like Elwood P. Dowd, alone can see. He may not be a pooka, a benign, but mischievous creature, like Harvey, but the rabbit does come up with colorful and outlandish suggestions for gifts such as red underwear! She chooses red apples. Yellow bananas are chosen in lieu of a yellow taxicab! Bartlett pears are opted for instead of caterpillars, emeralds or parrots with stars, sapphires and lakes put aside for grapes. The others are definitely out of her price range or too large to wrap, with grapes being a good compromise.
The assembling of the fruit basket and the casual wave of the rabbit’s paw as he disappears into the woods, ends a child’s journey to find the perfect gift, discarding suggestions of what she might love to give her mother, but deciding on what is doable and of her own choosing with gentle nudges by the hirsute but kindly hare.
1972 – William’s Doll Pictures by William Pene du Bois.
William created quite a stir when he appeared in 1972. Imagine, a young boy who loves sports and electric trains, yet longs for a doll to hold! In William’s Doll, his longing is termed “creepy” and he is called a “sissy”. This is what School Library Journal had to say about it: “An excellent book about a boy named William who wants the forbidden – a doll. The long-awaited handling of this theme makes it a landmark book.”
It falls to his grandmother to purchase the doll for William as his exasperated father asks, “Why does he need a doll?” She patiently explains that ….he can practice being a father”! All those nurturing ways will be learned and then made part of someone else’s life when William becomes a man – with his own children as the beneficiaries!
It seems Ms. Zolotow’s concern for the feeling of children stemmed from her own “uneasy childhood”. So, thank you, Charlotte, for giving voice to those feelings that generations of young readers could not. You will be missed, but the legacy of your classic picture books lives on as long as young readers everywhere thoughtfully turn the pages of your books!
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