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Where she began: Charlotte's birth family

A pioneer in a multi-faceted career that has spanned 50 years,  Charlotte Zolotow has written over 90 books for children, and edited hundreds of others, since her birth in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1915. Her father (pictured left), the gentle, gentlemanly Louis J. Shapiro, practiced law, and also ran several businesses: an antique furniture reproduction company (his parents, Charlotte's grandparents, were in the antique furniture business), as well as what we would today call an industrial design service. But though he was gifted in all three professions, and though Charlotte adored him, he was not a good businessman, and the family suffered many reversals of fortune accordingly. An atmosphere of uncertainty and financial insecurity pervaded Charlotte's early years.

Charlotte's mother, Ella (pictured right), was a strong-willed and imposing mother. Ella was considered a great beauty who always dressed  meticulously. She believed strongly in women's rights, marching for women's suffrage --- and she was "one of the first to bob her hair," Charlotte remembers. (In those days, a woman's long hair was considered her "crowning glory", and many hours were spent dressing it elaborately. Cutting one's hair short was thus a s symbol for emancipation). Ella, an active Hadassah member, also worked for the poor and down-trodden, serving on committees to help Jewish orphanages and other charities.  

Charlotte was the youngest of the two Shapiro daughters, born six years after Dorothy (Pictured left: Charlotte's sister Dorothy, her mother Ella, and Charlotte, left to right). You can learn something about their relationship in Charlotte's book Big Sister, Little Sister). The family moved often, usually in search of better economic opportunities. After Norfolk, the Shapiros lived in Detroit, Michigan (where she learned to read and saw her first snowstorm), Brookline, Massachusetts, and New York City.  Even when they stayed in a place for awhile, the family changed apartments frequently. "My mother loved moving, loved a new apartment," Charlotte remembers. 

The moves, and the new schools that often came with them, were difficult for Charlotte, especially as, from about second-grade on, she had a series of physical problems that isolated her further.   She was fitted with large, thick glasses, then braces on her teeth. Then, because she had scoliosis (curvature of the spine), she wore a large and ungainly, inflexible back-brace.  Quiet, shy, and slow to make friends anyway, the glasses, braces, and back-brace made her appear even more different to other children. 

Her much-loved Aunt Anne (pictured right) was an intermittent source of comfort and affection to her, as was Charlotte's much-loved dog, a Boston bull terrier named Pudgie. In fact, Charlotte's first essay --- written in fourth grade --- was written from Pudgie's point of view (she, the little Boston bull who was the main character, wondered what school was like). 

When the family moved from Boston to New York, Charlotte's parents gave Pudgie away, probably reasoning that with a pet it would be more difficult to find an apartment in New York. Her mother, Ella, told Charlotte the dog had run away. As a small consolation, Charlotte's father started a collection of china animals for Charlotte, about which she later wrote an essay (The American Girl, a magazine of the time, awarded her a small silver pencil as a prize for it). But still, without Pudgie Charlotte was bereft, and her mother's lies only made things worse for the lonely and imaginative little girl (Why would Pudgie had run away? What if she was hungry and lost?). One day, asking Ella for the hundredth time about Pudgie, Charlotte's mother snapped, "She turned into a duck and flew away." 

To the young Charlotte's grief, then,  was added a feeling of betrayal and confusion. Not long after that, in the New York school system she was put into  classes much larger than those she was accustomed to Brookline. She became prone to fainting spells. These lasted until she was placed in a private school with much smaller classes, where she finally made a friend or two and was encouraged by the teachers. At that second private school, she says, "It was the first time that I felt  seen as something other than a nerdy little girl." 

All of these experiences are part of what led Charlotte towards writing. She always wanted to be a writer, for as long, she says, as she can remember. "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 also never forgot what it was like to feel like an outsider, to be lonely, and perhaps most of all, to not be told the truth about what was happening in your family and your life. 

Remembering the child's point of view

Perhaps this early shyness is part of what has made her a lifelong champion of honest, non-sugar-coated literature for young readers. "Children have the same emotions as adults, " she says, "though they experience them more intensely,  since they haven't yet learned the protective camouflage with which we adults disguise our feelings." Charlotte's career would be founded on articulating her sense of what the experience of childhood was like,  from the child's point of view. "I remember actually thinking, when I was a child, that I would remember things that had happened, things that seemed important to me but seemed to go unnoticed by the adults around." (Charlotte, shy and self-conscious,  pictured left). She began writing early, winning a silver pencil as a prize for her writing in the third grade, and being further encouraged for her ability by "A wonderful teacher, Mrs. Danforth." And she also became a voracious reader. 

An early love of the green and growing world

She read The Secret Garden (cover pictured left), by  Frances Hodgson Burnett, over and over (later she would read it aloud to her own two children). "I loved the wisdom of the children in it, and their connection to the garden and the natural world and its cycles, and the whole feeling of life it engendered." This love of nature became part of both her writing and her life. It shows up in many of her books, such as In My Garden, Over and Over,  and Summer Is.  And it fills the days of her life as well. An avid gardener, her small backyard in  Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, is filled with flowering plants from early spring through late fall. "The garden is one of my greatest satisfactions here, " she says. "When we moved here, it was nothing but a dead, sandy, neglected lot." Now there is a green lawn, a curving flower bed which includes not only standards like roses and iris, but such plants as flowering thistles raised from seeds from Emily Dickinson's garden, and transplanted wild trillium from her sister Dorothy's farm in Vermont. (Above right: Charlotte instilled a love of nature in her daughter Ellen, now Crescent, early on; above left, the cover for one of Charlotte's countless books which express faith and comfort by observing life's seasons and cycles.). 

Even inside the house, there are green plants everywhere, year-round. She says, "The plants in my house are for me almost like company in the room." 

Many of the thousands of books Charlotte Zolotow has inscribed for readers over the years bear her signature--- in green. (Charlotte, left, signing books, at about age 57.)     

























A great opening out

In 1929, In 1929 she began attending college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She recalls her Madison years as  "A great opening out."

Her lifelong determination to remember what childhood was like from the inside was sharpened as she studied the writing of Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget, exploring Piaget's developmental theories, especially his ideas about how the meaning and use of words may be utterly different and distinct for children and adults.

hcwhite.jpg (40447 bytes)Studying art under Professor Otto Hagen (father-in-law of the great stage actress Uta Hagen)  was  "A deep experience, to which I responded completely."

 And she also studied writing. Professor Helen C. White,  her writing teacher, was, she says "unique in the way she influenced and helped people with talent to learn how to draw on their own inner thoughts and feelings... to reach readers through these as well as intellect." (Helen C. White, pictured left, in a portrait by Harold N. Hone, Madison, Wisconsin, December, 1964, courtesy of the CCBC.) 

Although most of her writing in college (mostly short stories) was for adults but about children, children's book writing, she says, "united" her deepening  interest in art, writing, and child development. "I didn't happen accidentally into the field of children's literature," she says.    

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