Go to the Zs in any picture-book section in any public library children’s room, and you will find treasure. As both editor and author Charlotte Zolotow was responsible for some of the most lasting picture-book texts of the mid-to-late 20th century. As a writer, her range was prodigious. The Bunny Who Found Easter is a perennial favorite still, over 50 years after its original publication. The Sleepy Book and The Seashore Book distill childhood experiences simply and beautifully. This Quiet Lady, Big Brother and A Father Like That are just a few of the many titles that sensitively and honestly explore children’s relationships with family and friends. William’s Doll raised eyebrows upon its publication in 1972 with its affirmation that boys can love dolls, too. That many of her texts have been reissued with new illustrations—some multiple times—stands as evidence of the timelessness of Zolotow’s insights.
When my own daughter was small, I found that I could take just about any of Zolotow’s books home and that it would be a hit. At one Zolotow book per library visit, I had guaranteed successful bedtime read-alouds for months. I think our favorite was When I Have a Little Girl, with illustrations by Hilary Knight. It’s a masterpiece of subtext, in which an impish little girl lectures her mother about all of the things she will let her daughter do. “When I have a little girl, / she can wear party dresses to school. // She can go without a coat or hat or boots the very first warm day / ...even if it snows again later.” And on and on. If some of this little girl’s fantasies are a little dated—her little girl will be able to pat the furs of the ladies standing in front of her in line (in Knight’s illustration, said furs are clearly delighted by the attention)—the sentiments are eternal. We were fortunate enough to have our own hand-me-down copy, and we read it to shreds.
(Readers who want to share this book with their own daughters are well advised to avoid the dos-à-dos reprint that combined When I Have a Little Girl with When I Have a Little Boy. In a boneheaded gesture to economy, some heartless bean counter in production dictated that the two spreads be combined into one long spread throughout, completely destroying the perfect pacing of the original.)
Though not everything Zolotow wrote was a winner (“Not up to this author’s standards,” we wrote of A Rose, a Bridge, and a Wild Black Horse in 1964), more often than not her words soared, so much so that her craft inspired the Charlotte Zolotow Award, given annually by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin to recognize excellent picture-book texts. Her legacy can best be described, as Kirkus summed up I Know a Lady, as one of “Imperishable loveliness.”
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.