Family, friends, and colleagues of Charlotte Zolotow gathered at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City on May 27 to celebrate the author and editor’s lifetime of contributions to the children’s literary world. Zolotow, who died on November 19, 2013 at age 98, wrote more than 70 books for children and edited a great many more during her tenure at HarperCollins. Tears commingled with laughter as speakers including Robert Lipsyte, Patricia MacLachlan, and Zolotow’s children, Stephen Zolotow and Crescent Dragonwagon, reminisced about her prolific career, her strengths and fears, and what she loved best in the world.
Serving as master of ceremonies, Robert Lipsyte spoke of Zolotow’s impeccable skills as an editor, and her courage as a “concerned participant in hope and progress,” who believed that “no topic is off limits because the reader is young.”
Patricia MacLachlan reflected on the lessons that Zolotow taught her about writing. “Trust your characters,” Zolotow told her. “But don’t you be there ever. I never want to see you in your books.” Another message from Zolotow: “Listen to your children and to all children. They know everything.” This maxim also informed Zolotow’s children’s books. In Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962), illustrated by Maurice Sendak, “it is the child who teaches the rabbit the truth of her mother: that she likes birds and trees,” said MacLachlan. As did Zolotow herself.
Zolotow’s son, Stephen, spoke about thematic threads in his mother’s work, including death, intergenerational relationships, time, and the turning of seasons. Throughout her life and writing, she was concerned about aging and “treated the elderly with dignity.” As she grew older, she was painfully aware that, often, “America is no country for old men or women.” While Zolotow was not a churchgoer or believer in an afterlife, her son said that should she live on somewhere, “she is in communication with the birds and flowers.”
Explaining by way of introduction, “I’m just the neighbor, but I knew a lady [who was] beautiful, elegant, and reserved,” Susan Whelan described her many years living next door to Zolotow in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. One of Zolotow’s notable qualities, Whelan learned, is that “she felt things very, very deeply.”Edite Kroll, Zolotow’s executive assistant–turned-agent, spoke of Zolotow’s commitment to providing “ongoing, strong, corporate support of writers,” while author and editor Laura Geringer, who worked closely with Zolotow, recalled her initial anxiety in meeting her: “I was nervous – she was a legend.” Yet by the end of that first meeting, “I was in love,” Geringer said.
Describing her mother’s life as being “prolific, contradictory, and full,” Dragonwagon movingly discussed Zolotow’s years as a driven author and impassioned editor. She also offered an intimate glimpse into her mother’s final years. Zolotow grew angry over the slipping away of her faculties, but over time, this anger was replaced with serenity and a contentment with living in the present moment. Similar to the child in her 1957 book Over and Over (illustrated by Garth Williams), for whom time resembles a river of events that merge back into one another with the return of a holiday or season, “all the things Charlotte had seen and done were mixed up. She became almost dreamlike,” her daughter remembered.
Dragonwagon referred to her mother’s final days as both “in time and out of time” and “an undreamt-of privilege and surprise. ‘Now’ was pretty great for Charlotte.”
Her mother even began to dance, thanks in large part to Zolotow’s caretakers, who brought Afro-Caribbean rhythms into the household. While Dragonwagon never saw her mother dance to Vivaldi, she saw her sway to Senegalese music.
In return for the tenderness and joie de vivre of her caregivers, Zolotow offered wisdom and encouragement for their creative and intellectual endeavors. Hawa Diallo, a survivor of the genocide in Mauritania, was Zolotow’s lead caregiver up until Zolotow's death. Diallo, who arrived in the U.S. not knowing how to read, learned how under Zolotow’s guidance, and also discovered a natural talent for painting. Revealed at the memorial was Diallo’s large portrait of Zolotow, in which she is surrounded by sprigs of wildflowers. Diallo had based the painting on a photograph of the author, which was featured on the memorial service program.
Within the indefinite river of memory, Zolotow continued to hold words, stories, and pictures close. In fact, toward the end of Zolotow’s life, a caretaker overheard her saying in her sleep: “That sounds wonderful! I can’t wait to read it. Tell me more!” Dragonwagon said she knew: “She was talking to her authors.”