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, 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.
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