Archives for posts with tag: Charlotte Zolotow

One Picture Book Text: Multiple Interpretations

Charlotte Zolotow

Charlotte Zolotow both edited and wrote many of the outstanding children’s books of the last 60 years. Thanks to the expanse of her writing career, several of her earlier picture books have been re-illustrated in recent years. The differences in styles, trends and printing technology demonstrate once again how many ways there are to interpret a single picture book text.

pigeons illus. by Bobri

pigeons illus. by Plume

cranes illus. by Bobri

cranes illus. by Plume


As picture book writers, we write to communicate with our young readers, but we also write to communicate with our future illustrators.

Picture Books to Explore

IF YOU LISTEN by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Marc Simont. Harper, 1980.

IF YOU LISTEN by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Stefano Vitale. Running Press, 2002.

ONE STEP, TWO by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Cindy Wheeler. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1981.

ONE STEP, TWO by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Roger Duvoisin. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1955.

THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Vladimir Bobri. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1958.

THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Ilse Plume. Harper, 1988.

THE SLEEPY BOOK by Charlotte Zolotow. Illus. by Stefano Vitale. Harper, 2001.



Sempe' PAR AVION. Knopf, 1991.

These days it is not uncommon for picture book authors to receive a rejection letter stating something like “beautifully written, but too quiet” or “beautifully written, but won’t sell in today’s market.” One quickly wonders if Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Alvin Tresselt, and Ruth Krauss would be able to find a publisher today. Still, we see quiet picture books from earlier years (including these authors) continually reprinted, as well as the occasional new quiet book.

At least three questions arise. #1 Is there a place for quiet books in the current market? #2 Is there a place for quiet books in children’s literature? And, #3 What makes a good book that is also quiet in tone?

#1 Yes. But in a tight market place filled with buyers living at the pace of video games and multi-tasking it is certainly a tougher sale. At least until they discover a value in a bit of quiet. Many years ago I often rolled my eyes at the slow pace of Mister Rogers. Then one day a parent kindly chided me. In the hubbub of the current world and the speed of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers provided a needed balance and an opportunity for calmer times.

#2 Always. Just as the still life will always be a vital part of painting, the quiet book will forever be a valuable part of children’s literature and children’s lives.

#3 But one must never confuse a good still life painting or a good quiet book for something that is lifeless, flat, and boring. A great still life painting is vibrantly alive in its stillness, and so is the engaging, quiet picture book.

Before we dismiss the editors and publishers who reply “beautifully written, but too quiet” we have the opportunity to re-examine our manuscript to see what kind of quiet we have written. Quiet need not be synonymous with nothing happens or nothing changes. It is the awareness and transition that engages the reader. Marie Hall Ets classic quiet book PLAY WITH ME offers a lively example. The narrator, a young girl, rushes from place to place and animal to animal in hopes of making a connection. But her rushing only scares all the creatures away. It is only in her stillness—a time of receptive quiet—that the creatures come to her.

Our manuscript may be quiet, but it is important to ask what is it inviting young readers to explore and discover. How does our manuscript’s quiet provide space to widen their lives? If we’re not sure, it’s time to go back to work.

A Sampling of Quiet Picture

BABOON by Kate Banks. Illus. by Georg Hallensleben. Frances Foster/Farrar, 1997.

THE EMPTY POT by Demi. Holt, 1990.

HIDE AND SEEK by Janet S. Wong. Illus. by Margaret Chodos-Irvine. Harcourt, 2005,

MISS RUMPHIUS by Barbara Cooney. Viking 1982.

PLAY WITH ME by Marie Hall Ets. Viking 1955.

THE SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats. Viking, 1962.

Celebrating Tomi Ungerer

Today most children know Tomi Ungerer through two of his earliest books: CRICTOR and as the illustrator of FLAT STANLEY by Jeff Brown (1964). If, however, you were lucky enough to grow up during the 1950s and 1960s you likely have memories of many more books that feature Ungerer’s playful illustrations, unique sense of story, and rich language.

As a child my favorite book was THE MELLOPS GO SPELUNKING, one of the five books featuring a family of pigs. I loved the story and illustrations, but most of all I loved the word “spelunking”! By the time I became librarian in 1973 I had a list of Ungerer’s books that I was eager to share with children including the wonderfully subversive (or simply honest?) NO KISS FOR MOTHER.

This year not only marks Tomi Ungerer’s 80th birthday, but also an exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the republication of many of his picture books. For more on Tomi Ungerer and his books visit: [his official website]…/47564-q–a-with-tomi-ungerer-.html

            Q & A with Tomi Ungerer by Antonia Saxon. June 09, 2011…/the-child-in-tomi-ungerer-remains-undimmed.html

The Child in Tomi Ungerer Remains Undimmed –

June 28, 2011

May you enjoy these interviews and sampling his books as much as I do.

 A Sampling of Picture Books


CRICTOR. Harper, 1958.


MOON MAN. Harper, 1967.

NO KISS FOR MOTHER. Harper, 1973.

THE THREE ROBBERS. Atheneum, 1962.

P.S. I feel the need to take issue with one comment made by Mr. Ungerer in the  New York Times interview. In discussing the different aspects of writing versus illustrating he said, “Look, it’s a fact that the children’s books that withstand the grinding of time all come from authors who do both.” The writing of such non-illustrating authors as Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Gene Zion, and Ruth Kraus continue to thrive despite the “grinding of time.” Plus a good many more recent titles by Julia Donaldson, Martin Waddell, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal appear quite prepared for the long race.

Charlotte Zolotow:

A Sterling Presence in Children’s Literature

Catherine Balkin who worked with Ms. Zolotow for many years at Harper, and now has her own business connecting authors and children recently invited me to share some personal memories. I was honored. My brief piece has now been posted and can be read at

I also urge you to explore Charlotte Zolotow’s many picture books and read her lectures and essays that were published from time to time. You can visit her official website:

Letters from the Past to Nurture Our Future

When it comes to picture books, studying and celebrating the past can only improve our efforts. One way to do this is exploring the creative interactions between author and editor. If you haven’t read DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM do it soon. If you have no idea who Ursula Nordstrom was find this collection of her letters immediately.

Collected and edited by Leonard Marcus, this volume of Nordstrom’s letters shares the evolution of countless books, authors and illustrators during her years as head of Harper children’s books. Want to read how she wasn’t sure HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON would make a successful book? Go to page 83. If you think long-in-print books like DANNY AND THE DINOSAUR were written in a single draft think again, and read page 103. Read page 198 and discover that A BIRTHDAY FOR FRANCES was originally titled TELEVISION FOR FRANCES and went through many revisions.

From GOODNIGHT MOON to THE CARROT SEED to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS and beyond, Ursula Nordstrom was encouraging, challenging, and celebrating her authors.


DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. HarperCollins, 1998.


“Any life will provide the materials for writing, if it is attended to.”  Wallace Stegner

Charlotte Zolotow


the Attending Eye

The name Charlotte Zolotow is synonymous with excellence in children’s literature. Trained by Ursula Nordstrom, she became a nurturing editor of outstanding and often groundbreaking books for young people. She is also the author of a long list of picture books including classics like MR. RABBIT AND THE LOVELY PRESENT, WILLIAM’S DOLL, and DO YOU KNOW WHAT I’LL DO.

Like Wallace Stegner, Charlotte Zolotow knows the riches to be discovered by attending to one’s daily life. This is readily apparent in her writing, and is frequently her theme including ONE STEP, TWO and PETER AND THE PIGEONS. These two books written 38 years apart bring us directly into the child’s world. They also offer the picture book writer a reminder of the beauty to be found in the familiar that we so easily overlook in the search for “great ideas”.

In ONE STEP, TWO a toddler and her mother go for a walk. While the mother expects the walk to be a typical experience, her daughter is busy attending.  The daughter’s essence is intimacy and curiosity about her daily life.  She attends to her daily life, and directs both her mother’s and our attention to the riches in front of us.

Peter knows pigeons. He knows their sounds and touch. And, as a result, he loves them. Pigeons are a part of his daily life. His supportive father takes him to the zoo to encounter other animals. Zolotow’s gentle subtext is that the father hopes his son will become interested in more exotic animals. But it’s not to be as Peter models what we writers are forever needing to learn again.  Enjoy, honor and write what you know as small, daily, and matter of fact as it may be.

“That’s why,” Peter said. “I know their sounds and even the feel of their feathers. If I knew the others better, maybe I’d choose them. But right now, it’s pigeons I like best.

Write what you know. And, continue to explore new worlds of knowing.


ONE STEP, TWO. Illus. by Cindy Wheeler. Lothrop, 1981.

ONE STEP, TWO. Illus. by Roger Duvoisin. Lothrop, 1955.  (original edition)

PETER AND THE PIGEONS. Illus. by Martine Gourbault. Greenwillow, 1993.

When asked what she admired about Margaret Wise Brown’s writing—Charlotte Zolotow replied:  “For one thing, there is the sound of her words.  You want to hear GOODNIGHT MOON even if the language it is written in was foreign to you.”


Part I

No one questions that the picture book, like film, is a blending of word and image.  Yet most discussions of the genre treat the picture book as if it were a silent movie.  Content and image are discussed, but little or no attention is paid to sound.  Words and sentences are content and sound.  The writer’s use of sound can make the difference between merely sharing information and sharing the emotional experience of a story. 

People are forever aghast when they learn picture book writers don’t get to choose their illustrators or tell them what to draw. They almost pity us for having no control.  But, if we writers do our best to evoke as well as report, we have far more input than most people suspect. How? By writing with attention to the sound and shape of our sentences and pacing.  In doing this, we provide our editor and illustrator with an emotional experience—a valuable map toward the visual extension of the text.  We will have also written a better picture book.

Upcoming posts on Writing to be Heard will include:

1.   Picture Books & the Oral Tradition

2.  Sound as Content & Meaning

3.  Rhythm as Content & Meaning

4.  Narrative Shape as Content & Meaning

5.  Rhyming: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly