Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Charlotte Zolotow’

21 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Hating Book: An Illustrated Vintage Parable About What Every Friendship Needs

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“You’re ugly and dumb. Being with you was never fun.”

In 1961, young Maurice Sendak illustrated Let’s Be Enemies — a charming lesson in friendship via reverse psychology by writer Janice May Urdy, published by Harper’s children’s division. Eight years later, the same publisher, overseen by Sendak’s remarkable editor and patron-saint Ursula Nordstrom, came out with The Hating Book (public library | IndieBound) by Charlotte Zolotow, the beloved children’s writer whom we recently lost and with whom Sendak frequently collaborated — a story strikingly similar in its ethos to Let’s Be Enemies, only featuring two little girls rather than two little boys, and illustrated by a very young Ben Shecter in a style akin to Sendak’s.

Whether the parallel was intentional or just the product of creative happenstance, we’ll never know. But Zolotow’s story and Shecter’s illustrations stand on their own not only as a lovely vintage treasure, but also an endearing, light-hearted yet poignant reminder that we invent our attitudes towards friends and foes, that a great deal of how we interpret another person’s behavior and intentions is merely a projection of the stories we’ve constructed about them, and that open communication is the glue of true friendship.

I hate, hate, hated my friend.

When I moved over in the school bus, she sat somewhere else.

When her point broke in arithmetic and I passed her my pencil, she took Peter’s instead.

What if she should say
Oh, please, just go away.
You’re ugly and dumb.
Being with you
was never fun.

Oh, I hated my friend.

When it was her turn to wash the board,
she didn’t ask me to help.

Oh, I hated my friend.

When I went to walk home with her,
she had already gone.

When she took her dog out
and I whistled to him,
she put him on a leash
and led him away.

Oh, I hated my friend.

After a few more spreads of inner turmoil, the snubbed little girl eventually decides to take her mother’s advice and confront her friend.

“You’ve been so rotten,” I said.
“Why?”
She looked as though she’d cry.
“It’s you,” she said. “Last week
when I wore my new dress,
Sue said Jane said you said
I looked like a freak.”
“I did not!
I said you looked neat!”

Both girls, it turns out in the heartwarming end, had succumbed to the Benjamin Franklin Effect in inventing their “hate” for the other.

She looked straight at me for a while,
and then we both began to smile.
My friend said, “Hey
maybe tomorrow we can play?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, “OKAY!”

I didn’t hate her anyway.
I wish it were tomorrow.

Mercifully, The Hating Book was reprinted in 1989 and remains in circulation — treat yourself to it, then revisit I’ll Be You and You Be Me, the lovely 1954 ode to friendship by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Sendak.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2013

To Live Long, Write for Children: RIP Charlotte Zolotow, 98

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Honoring one of the biggest hearts and most brilliant minds in children’s literature.

For those who hold children’s books dear, a little piece of the soul dies every time another beloved children’s book author or artist leaves us. It helps a little to know that the great Charlotte Zolotow (June 26, 1915–November 19, 2013) lived to be 98. (On a semi-serious aside: It seems that writing for children holds an especial promise of longevity, with many authors and illustrators outliving the average life expectancy of their homeland by years, often decades — Maurice Sendak lived to be 84, E. B. White 86, Ruth Krauss 92, Alice Provensen reportedly continues to draw well into her nineties, and Eric Carle just released his latest book at 84. There must be something uniquely soul-nourishing about the warmth and kindness that writing for children both requires and stimulates.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

Although she authored and edited more than seventy books, Zolotow remains best-known for Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, published in 1962 and illustrated by none other than Sendak. But the most influential relationship of her career was with the great Ursula Nordstrom, fairy godmother of modern children’s literature, who steered Zolotow’s collaboration with Sendak and with whom Zolotow worked closely for many years thereafter. From Leonard Marcus’s altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — which also gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing and the infinitely heartwarming story of how she cultivated young Sendak’s genius — comes the wonderful record of Zolotow’s formative relationship with Nordstrom.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

In August of 1961, when Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present was coming together, Nordstrom assured Sendak of Zolotow’s commitment to the project:

She is so glad you’re illustrating it, and so are we, that nothing can cloud our pleasure.

A few months later, on October 30, she sent a heartwarming letter to Zolotow herself:

Dear Charlotte—

Sendak’s pictures are so lovely for your (untitled) book! Utterly different from anything he’s ever done — with a timeless, classic quality: You’ll be happy, I know. The little girl is so lovely, and the rabbit is funny, a good combination, I think.

After thanking Zolotow for recommending a play Nordstrom had just seen and loved, and for Zolotow’s kind words about the only children’s book Nordstrom herself ever wrote, The Secret Language, she holds up a mirror of warm mutuality:

I can never tell you how grateful I am to you, dear friend and author. I’ve never had anyone — well, — be so generous and kind, certainly no AUTHOR — as you’ve been.

The longtime collaboration and lifelong friendship between the two began when Zolotow became Nordstrom’s editorial assistant at Harper & Row — a position that, under the influence of Nordstrom’s enormous generosity of spirit and creative bravery, no doubt helped Zolotow cultivate her own. In fact, she soon became Nordstrom’s right-hand-woman and was even the one to bring in Louise Fitzhugh’s hugely popular 1964 classic, Harriet the Spy, which queer women continue to celebrate for its trailblazing use of an apparently queer protagonist.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)

In a 2009 interview, Zolotow spoke of the interplay between being a writer and being an editor:

Being both a writer and editor affects different expressions of the same personality. Writers must shut out everyone else while they write. They must forget outside suggestions, or the temptation to follow suggestions separate from their own visions.

Editors must resist the desire to insert their own idea of how and where the story goes. They must resist the temptation to offer their own words as a solution when something is weak; instead they should alert the writer to this weakness, so that if the writer agrees, she may solve the problem in her own words and way.

When Nordstrom was ready to leave Harper, she bequeath her department to Zolotow. In a 1980 letter to another one of her authors, Mary Stolz, Nordstrom wrote:

I told Charlotte Zolotow many months ago that I wanted to slope off my job with Harper, and not be an editor any more. There are good things about it, always have been, but no more working with authors, dealing with contracts, worrying about the lack of reviews, or when there are bad ones, for “my” authors. Charlotte, as head of the department, is a brilliant and sensitive creative person. She will see that your work get the good attention I think you have always had from the dept.

Illustration by William Pène du Bois from William's Doll (1972)

And see to it she did — Zolotow went on to bring to life dozens of books for young readers, from her very first, The Park Book, published in 1944 and illustrated by H. A. Ray, to such delights as William’s Doll (1972) illustrated by William Pène du Bois and I Know a Lady (1984) illustrated by James Stevenson to her final book, The Beautiful Christmas Tree, published in 1999 and illustrated by the inimitable Yan Nascimbene, whom we also lost this year.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Charlotte Zolotow's Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962)

Thank you for the many lovely presents, Charlotte.

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