Author’s works were a special lens into children’s lives

The more than 70 children’s books by Charlotte Zolotow are not, in many cases, escapist, fantasy fare.

“My Grandson Lew” is about a boy struggling with the death of his grandfather; “The Old Dog” concerns the loss of a beloved pet; “The Hating Book” deals with anger toward a friend; and “William’s Doll” is about a boy who is bullied because he wants a doll.

(Los Angeles Times) - Charlotte Zolotow in 1986.

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Mrs. Zolotow approached these topics and many more in a gentle, reassuring manner. The author, who had a difficult, troubled upbringing, firmly believed that it was unhealthy for children’s feelings toward sadness to be discounted or, even worse, ignored.

“Children have the same emotions as adults, though they experience them more intensely,” she is quoted as saying on a Web site dedicated to her work, “since they haven’t yet learned the protective camouflage with which we adults disguise our feelings.”

Mrs. Zolotow, 98, died Nov. 19 at her home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., said her daughter, author Crescent Dragonwagon. No cause was provided.

One of Mrs. Zolotow’s last published books was 1997’s “Who Is Ben?” about a boy asking questions about his existence.

“The boy asks, ‘Why does the day end?’ ” Dragonwagon said, “and his mother tells him that it doesn’t end, it goes on to become day somewhere else.”

Charlotte Gertrude Shapiro was born June 26, 1915, in Norfolk, Va. Her father owned several businesses but is described on Mrs. Zolotow’s Web site as “not a good businessman,” and the family moved several times during her childhood.

As a girl, she had to deal with a number of physical problems — including curvature of the spine that required her to wear a back brace — that made her feel apart from other children.

There were other sad experiences. In elementary school she was given a dog she described as her “closest friend,” but during a move her parents secretly gave the pet away because they felt it could make it difficult to find an apartment. Her mother said the dog had run away, causing the girl much anguish, and only later did she learn the truth.

Writing stories was a solace. “I loved the idea of not only expressing myself in words but, because I was very shy in conversation, reaching other people through my writing,” she said.

Mrs. Zolotow attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she studied the works of Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget and continued writing.

But professionally, she first worked on the publishing side of the business, joining Harper & Brothers (later Harper & Row) in 1938. There, she edited several authors of children’s and young adult works, including Mary Rodgers, Barbara Dana, Paul Fleischman, sportswriter Robert Lipsyte and actor Alan Arkin.

“Love and passion are a large part of being an editor,” Mrs. Zolotow said in a speech in Los Angeles in 1986. “It is the duty of the publisher to encourage not only the authors whom we publish, but anyone who has some spark that burns underneath.”

Indeed, the children’s book editor at the firm encouraged her, and Mrs. Zolotow’s first book, “The Park Book,” was published in 1944 with illustrations by H.A. Rey of “Curious George” fame. Mrs. Zolotow continued working in publishing, with some breaks, until she retired from that side of the business in 1991.

She kept writing prose and poetry, as she had throughout most of her publishing career, and her books were illustrated by some of the best-known artists in the field. Maurice Sendak worked on 1962’s “Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present,” for example. She also put together anthologies of stories by other authors, including the 1986 compilation “Early Sorrow: Ten Stories of Youth” that focused on divorce and other difficult topics for young readers.

Her own writing sometimes brought her back to her lonely childhood. But she adamantly believed that what made them genuine was a real-world, child’s point of view.

“I remember actually thinking, when I was a child, that I would remember things that had happened,” she said, “things that seemed important to me but seemed to go unnoticed by the adults around.”

Her marriage to writer Maurice Zolotow ended in divorce. Besides her daughter, survivors include a son, Stephen Zolotow; one grandchild; and two great-grandchildren.

— Los Angeles Times

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