Though Charlotte always knew she’d write, she didn’t set out to be a children’s book writer. But in retrospect, her life and education seemed, as the New York Times put it, “exquisitely apt preparation for her future calling.”
“I remember thinking, when I was a child, that I would remember things that had happened,” she told her daughter, Crescent. “Things that were important to me but seemed to go unnoticed by the adults around.”
She began writing early, winning a silver pencil in third grade. A voracious reader, one favorite was The Secret Garden. “I loved the wisdom of the children, their connection to the garden, the natural world and its cycles, the whole feeling of life it engendered.” Her love of nature shows up in many of her books, like In My Garden, and Over and Over
In 1929 she began college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her determination to remember childhood sharpened as she studied the developmental theories of Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget, especially his ideas about the different, distinct ways children and adults often used words. Studying art under Professor Otto Hagen was “…a deep experience, to which I responded completely.”
She studied writing under Professor Helen C. White, who “… 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.” Children’s book writing, she later told her daughter, “united” her deepening interest in art, writing, and child development. Most of Charlotte’s college writings were short stories; for adults but about children.
After college, she worked at Harper and Brothers in the children’s book department. The legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom drew her first book, The Park Book, (1944) from her.
By the time of her death, over 70 of Charlotte’s books had been published, some reissued and re-illustrated three and four times as decades passed. Most titles are picture books; others, collections of short poems. She has been published in over 15 different languages.
Her daughter, Crescent Dragonwagon, now her literary executor, continues working with Charlotte’s material. Charlotte’s first posthumous book, Changes, draws from three of Charlotte’s out-of-print poetry collections, creating a seasonally themed book of poems for very young children. “I often think of the line from I Never Sang for My Father,” says Crescent. ” ‘Death ends a life, not a relationship.’ It’s strange and wondrous, collaborating with my mother through her writing.”