Charlotte Zolotow's birthday was June 26, so I'm three days late to this online party, a celebration of her life and work hosted by Semicolon.
It's only been in recent years that I've come to know and enjoy Charlotte Zolotow's books. My daughter and I recently read Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, a lovely book! Our favorite, I think, is The Seashore Book.
But to really pay my respects to Charlotte Zolotow, I need to go back to my blog archives from two summers ago. In June 2006, I posted about a memory I had while reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, edited by Leonard Marcus. The memory was of an encouraging letter I received from Charlotte Zolotow, then an editor at Harper's, when I was sixteen years old.
Allow me to pull a bit from my old post, which was originally titled "The Audacity of Youth."
Continuing my delicious read of Ursula Nordstrom's letters, and came across a bit of information that made me recall a wonderfully audacious moment from my adolescence.
Charlotte Zolotow started out in the world of children's publishing as Ursula Nordstrom's secretary. Later on she became a distinguished author and editor in her own right...
I happen to have a letter from Charlotte Zolotow in my files. An actual typewritten (yes, typewritten) letter with a signature. It was a reply to a query I sent to Harper's when I was sixteen years old. I actually wrote to Charlotte Zolotow to pitch the idea for a picture book I'd already written.
The book was called Homer and was the story of a leaf that turned red on a tree where almost all of the other leaves turned yellow. He was teased and got embarrassed about how different he was, but in the end, he became immortalized in a little girl's beautiful collage. It was, if I say so myself, a pretty good story. I wrote a lot during my high school years, and my love of children's literature had given me a pretty good story-telling sense and rhythm. My dad helped me reproduce the text (we actually enlarged my typewritten sheets on a photocopier... this was still a few years before everyone had a computer) and we pasted the words on cardstock. He did beautiful illustrations for it and we actually bound it by hand. I still have the book -- I've not yet shared it with my little girl because it's sort of fragile now and I think she will appreciate it more later and treat it more gently too.
I'm getting sidetracked. I did not send the book or even a whole typewritten manuscript to Charlotte Zolotow. I knew enough to know that I should simply send a query letter and share my idea, which I did. I don't have a copy of that original letter I wrote, but I do have her very gracious reply. I just re-found it in my files a few months ago...
CZ, as Ursula Nordstrom called her, took me seriously. She told me that she didn't think they could offer to publish my book successfully because the theme of someone mocked for being different but triumphing in the end was a tried and true one that had been done before, perhaps best in Hans Christian Anderson's "The Ugly Duckling," which had been one of my favorites in childhood. She told me I'd made an "impressive start" to my "writing career" (I still remember how much those few words meant to me) and encouraged me to read everything I could and to keep writing.
What a treasure of a letter. And what an audacious thing for me to do, to send a letter to such a respected editor at such an established publishing house. Of course, I had no clue then of what a part she had played in helping to publish renowned 20th century children's lit. I don't even think I knew any of her stories. If I'm remembering rightly, I picked her name out of a market listing because...I thought it was pretty!
My post went on to reflect on the audacity of youth, but what I wanted to highlight today is how much that letter meant to me, and how much it reminds me of how we can touch and encourage the lives of younger writers (and mothers, and teachers, and...fill in the blank) when they turn to us, whether that's in day to day friendships, or in more formal contacts via correspondence from someone we don't even really know. It's a wonderful thing to take the time to respond to someone with kindness. It was a blessing and a grace to me that an older, seasoned artist took the time to respond to me with such generosity, not condescending in any way, but gently and in a way that pushed me to think more about ways I could learn to do what I loved and do it better.
And when I see Charlotte Zolotow's books on the library shelf, I almost always think of it.