“We are not different from the children we were — only more experienced, better able to disguise our feelings from others, if not ourselves.” Charlotte Zolotow wrote in The Horn Book, (1985). “ … to buffer (our)selves against the full-blown intensity of a child’s emotions.”
Growing up, the emotions of the young girl who would become Charlotte Zolotow were intense indeed.
Charlotte was the second of two children born to Louis J. and Ella Shapiro. She was born on the same day — June 26th — as her sister, Dorothy, had been six years earlier; a shared birthday was not the only thing over which the sisters would compete. Their father was an attorney turned entrepreneur, their mother a strong-willed suffragette active in Jewish charity work.
Though Charlotte adored her father, he was not a good businessman. The family suffered many reversals, and an atmosphere of uncertainty and financial insecurity pervaded Charlotte’s early years. The family moved often. Frequently the new girl, Charlotte wore thick glasses, and braces on her teeth, and back brace for scoliosis. All this compounded her excruciating self-consciousness and sense of isolation and difference.
She found solace in books — The Secret Garden was one early favorite — and decided to become a writer; for as long, she would tell her daughter, as she could 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 was also determined not to forget what it was like to be a child.
In the 1930s, she studied art, writing and child psychology at the University of Wisconsin, where she met her future husband, Maurice Zolotow, who went on to a career as a Hollywood biographer. Charlotte began her own career as a stenographer in New York, in the adult trade-book division of Harper & Brothers, now HarperCollins. She soon moved to the children’s department. There she was mentored by the Ursula Nordstrom, a legendary children’s book editor in whom Charlotte found a kindred spirit: neither believed in sentimentalizing childhood, nor candy-coating the realities with which children had to contend. In 1944, under Ursula, Charlotte wrote her first children’s book, The Park Book, illustrated by H. A. Rey.
Thus began Charlotte’s rise in two parallel careers, intimately related and yet distinct: writer and editor/publisher of children’s book.
In 1946, she had a son, Stephen; in 1952, a daughter, Ellen (now Crescent Dragonwagon).