During her long and rich literary life, Charlotte Zolotow (1915–2013) authored 70 picture books that were released by more than 20 houses, including Harper & Row, where she was an editor and then publisher. A new edition of one of her timeless tales, In My Garden, originally illustrated by Roger Duvoisin and published in 1960 by the now defunct Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, will soon arrive on bookstore shelves. On March 24, Holiday House’s Neal Porter Books will publish a re-illustrated version of this long-out-of-print picture book, featuring the art of Philip C. Stead. The illustrator weaves a novel visual thread and an intergenerational component into Zolotow’s storyline, in which a girl explores her garden during the changing seasons, by introducing a second character, an older woman who shares the young heroine’s delight in nature as they watch the birds, fly a kite, plant flowers, and play in the snow.
The notion of publishing a re-illustrated edition of In My Garden surfaced in fall 2017, after literary agent Edite Kroll, who represents the author’s estate, showed Porter a list of Zolotow titles whose rights were available. According to the editor, who has long published Stead, that list arrived at a propitious time, since he had recently talked with the illustrator about what his next project might be. “I knew that Phil was hankering for a text to illustrate and, knowing that he is a connoisseur of children’s literature, I played a hunch and asked him how he felt about re-illustrating a book by Charlotte Zolotow. He responded in a millisecond.”
Stead, who has both written and illustrated picture books and penned others illustrated by his wife, Erin E. Stead (including the Caldecott-winning A Sick Day for Amos McGee), but had never before provided art for another author’s text, explained why he didn’t have to think twice about creating new art for a story by Zolotow.
“I have loved and collected Charlotte’s books for many years, and re-read them often,” said Stead, who dedicates In My Garden to Zolotow. “Her books have certainly guided my creative life. She is among the female writers of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s—along with Virginia Lee Burton, Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss, and others—who were the first authors who wrote for children, not at them. Rather than writing didactically, with an obvious message, they understood that a child’s internal world is valid on its own and worthy of respect. They did not write as authority figures or try to pull children into the adult world, but rather met them in their own world. They laid the groundwork for the great children’s literature that has followed.”
Mining a Treasure Trove
From the list of possible Zolotow titles to re-illustrate—which Stead estimated to be “about 60”—he and Porter whittled down their choices to three—and then selected In My Garden. Though Stead was well versed in the author’s oeuvre, he wasn’t familiar with this title, which he saw as a plus. “The list of choices offered such a fertile ground for illustrating,” he said. “I was less interested in tackling a book that I knew well, and I liked the idea of re-illustrating a story I didn’t already have a relationship with. And Neal and I also focused on books that we felt weren’t tethered to another era but would feel current today. And In My Garden absolutely did.”
Decision made, Stead faced a brand-new creative challenge. “When I was in art school, I thought I’d spend my career illustrating other writers’ words,” he said. “But there I was 20 years out of art school, doing that for the very first time. I had quite a bit of anxiety and struggled for some time to find my vision for In My Garden. With my own books, I do the text and art at the same time. If I need help with the art, I can go back to the text and make a change. I can push and pull on both sides—but that wasn’t possible here.”
Yet Stead eventually realized that the inspiration he needed was “right there, on the page.” Though Duvoisin had graphically interpreted In My Garden as a story with a single character, Stead’s many re-readings of the story illuminated an alternative scenario. “I began to feel that the story was written as a conversation between two characters,” he said. “And once I saw it that way, the story opened up for me, and I knew I wanted to add the woman character. One of the things I love about Charlotte’s writing is that she was deliberate about leaving empty spaces in her text, to enable illustrators to add additional plots.”
That was a hallmark of Zolotow’s stories, observed her daughter, Crescent Dragonwagon, a children’s and adult book author and poet, noting that Stead took full advantage of that open space. “Philip’s pictures are gorgeous, tender, floaty, and captivating,” she said. “And they add something Charlotte adored—what she always called ‘a visual subplot.’ By adding a second character, he let Charlotte’s timeless celebration of the seasons and nature—as grasped by one child—become a story of relationship. And what exactly is that relationship? That is, in the literal sense, sketchy. Philip’s genius is that he has left the details for readers to fill in, giving just enough scaffolding for them to imagine—and on which they may hang their own story.”
Stead regrets that he never met Zolotow—though he said he “almost” had the opportunity. Unfortunately, the author was ill and unable to attend the ceremony at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 2011, when A Sick Day for Amos McGee received Charlotte Zolotow Award Honors. Speculating on how the author might have reacted to his art for In My Garden, Stead noted, “I hope she would be thrilled to have this book back in print—and happy with my pictures. I like that I could keep the illustrations somewhat ambiguous, as she did with her text. Charlotte wrote stories like poetry, and you ruin poetry if you make it explicit.”
“I think Charlotte would be very pleased,” Dragonwagon said of the new edition. “I know I am, and I know young readers will be.”
In My Garden by Charlotte Zolotow, illus. by Philip C. Stead. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 Mar. 24 ISBN 978-0-8234-4320-8