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Pleasing Children Since '44, She's Still Write On

August 28, 1986|MARJORIE MARKS | Marks is a Los Angeles free - lance writer. and

Charlotte Zolotow's admirers arrived in droves last week at a Tarzana children's bookstore.

Young mothers came to see the author whose books they had read as children 25 years ago. Grandmothers wanted books autographed for their grandchildren. Teachers took time from summer vacations to express their admiration. And children sat on the floor with picture books spread open.

It was a literary love-in presided over by a woman whose writing career began in the fourth grade with a story written from the point of view of her dog. During the years since then, Zolotow has written 67 books that have been acclaimed for their sensitive insight into children's feelings.

"These books verbalize things that children cannot," said Nancy Erisman of Saugus, the mother of a 5-year-old son, Casey.

An Emerging Trend

Zolotow's early books were part of the movement toward more imaginative children's literature that began in the 1930s and '40s. It represented a sharp departure from the moralistic, preachy themes that characterized earlier children's books, back when, Zolotow sardonically notes, "all children were good, and all parents were lovely."

Now that it has been acknowledged that neither is the case, there has been an explosion in fiction for children based on realistic themes.

Although the truth is no longer hedged or ignored in children's literature, authors today generally strive for positive endings based on hope.

But, said Zolotow, "the hope is false unless you deal with the realities."

For the characters who populate her books, the realities are fairly basic.

'Hate Hate Hated'

"I hate hate hated my friend," says one character in Zolotow's "The Hating Book."

"I wish I had a father. . . . But my father went away before I was born," says another in "A Father Like That."

While the intricacies of relationships from a child's point of view are her forte, Zolotow's penchant for evoking tender memories from mature adults makes her a multigenerational favorite.

"I feel strongly that adults have the same emotions as children, but children have less protection against their feelings," she said. "At the age of 70, I feel the same emotions as I did at 5."

"The Hating Book," published in 1969, is based on a feud she had with a close friend when both women were in their 50s. The story is about how anger at a friend makes you feel like you'll hate someone forever, but eventually you make up and remain friends after all.

First Book in 1944

Zolotow, who was in Los Angeles for the Pacific Rim Conference on Children's Literature at UCLA, has been with Harper & Row, Publishers Inc. in New York since 1938. When her first child was born in 1944--the year her first book was published--she left Harper's, raised her children and wrote several more books.

In 1962, she returned, to be named editorial director and associate publisher of Harper Junior Books. She later became a vice president of the company. Today she is editorial consultant to Harper Junior Books and editorial director of her own imprint, "Charlotte Zolotow Books."

Recently, Zolotow edited two anthologies for teen-agers. The last one, "Early Sorrow: Ten Stories of Youth," is due this year. According to her introduction, "There are many forms of early sorrow, and when the grief is not understood it can color and change the kinds of adults we become."

Authors of children's and young adults' literature agree that, while the classics are still important in developing well-educated adults, if children's concerns about problems in their own lives are not addressed, youngsters may never get around to reading the classics.

'Emotions Similar'

It would be wrong, Zolotow said, "to protect them in literature from what we cannot protect them from in life. These feelings are real and more violent" than in the past, she acknowledged, "yet the emotions are similar."

"It is just that the events that set them off are different," she said.

"I don't know how they can be protected," said Anne Snyder, a Woodland Hills author of several young-adult books, including "My Name Is Davy, I'm an Alcoholic."

The book was the basis of an ABC Afternoon Special, "She Drinks a Little," and is considered so relevant today that it is distributed to schools and libraries.

Snyder, who laments today's loss of innocence, said she gets hundreds of letters each year from youngsters with suicide and other serious issues on their minds.

She answers such letters with "great dispatch," she said. "They tell me their deepest secrets, and if I didn't answer them, I wouldn't be able to sleep at night."

Much contemporary children's literature--dealing with suicide, alcohol, drugs, venereal disease and nuclear war--may cause traditionalists to squirm. Yet authors maintain that children will always crave a well-told tale, which is the basis of good literature, whatever its topic.

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