Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thank you, Charlotte Zolotow

Charlotte Zolotow was the author of Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present and Do You Know What I'll Do? and William's Doll. And scores of other children's books. She was a children's editor at Harper & Row when I submitted my first manuscript there.

This was back in the early Pleistocene Epoch. In those days, there were no blogs telling you how to write queries and how to get an agent. There were, in fact, no blogs at all. There was only The Writer's Market, in which editors were mentioned by name, often alongside their real, actual phone numbers. (I know because I called one of them, and she answered. I couldn't figure out what to say to such an august personage, so I murmured something and hung up.)

I had written a short story called "The Day Forsythia Went To School." It was about a girl named Emily and her goat, Forsythia. It was, though I say it as shouldn't, pretty funny. I typed it up on a manual typewriter and made photocopies, laying the pages down one-by-one on the glass pane of a library Xerox machine roughly the size of a small kitchen. I prepared a SASE (it was so embarrassing asking for double postage at the post office) and sent it off to an editor whose name I recognized: Charlotte Zolotow at Harper & Row.

I mentioned in the cover letter that I was sixteen. In those gentle times, this wasn't regarded as a pitiful plea for special treatment. It was regarded as a perfectly reasonable request for special treatment. I imagine that most editors back then took care to write kind, encouraging rejections to young writers. Actually, I imagine that many still do that today.

Charlotte Zolotow did more than that. She took me seriously. She asked to see the rest of my novel.

Not having been prepared for such an eventuality, I hadn't actually written the rest of the novel.

So I took a few months and did that. In retrospect, I have to say the thing was not a novel. It was a type of children's book that was at that very moment becoming extinct: a series of humorous but only slightly-related episodes.

The manuscript came back months later, rejected, but covered with initialed notes from Ms. Zolotow and other Harper & Row staff. One of these notes said "Change to 3rd person, a la Charlotte's Web?" It was my impression at the time that this had been jotted by Ursula Nordstrom, the editor of that spider-based classic.

The rejection letter was long and detailed. It told me just what I needed to work on, and encouraged me to keep writing. I'm very glad that a couple years ago I had the chance to get in touch with Ms. Zolotow through her daughter and thank her, and tell her I had.

Charlotte Zolotow died today. I'm crying as I type this. I'm grateful that Charlotte Zolotow took the time to encourage young writers.

Let us go and do likewise.

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