A PERSON HAS A LIFE, WITH A DEFINITE AND IRREFUTABLE BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END.
BUT, WITH A BOOK IT’S NOT SO CLEAR.
I spent a recent Sunday, improbably, working on an introduction to the forthcoming Chinese edition of a children’s book entitled Sleepy Book.
Written in 1956 or ’57 and published in 1958, its author is Charlotte Zolotow, my late mother. That is how I came to be in the position of introducing a book to the parents and teachers of young readers in a vast country I have never visited, a book that will be published there in a language I do not speak, in characters I cannot read. A book written when I was five.
I am Charlotte’s literary executor. It’s a branch of my professional life I was always vaguely aware lay ahead for me, but to which I gave little forethought and about which I had little discussion with my mother beforehand, other than agreeing to do it when she asked me.
This role, among many other things, has me thinking a lot about what is eternal and universal, and what is temporal and particular.
LIFE, DEATH, LITERATURE
A person’s life has a definite and irrefutable beginning, middle, and end. But a book?
Every time a reader picks a book up, doesn’t it it comes to life again? Yes. But there is a problem with this idea: its corollary is that the book then “dies” when the reader finishes it and puts it down. And yet, if a book is good enough, or at least meaningful enough to the reader, it doesn’t “die” at that point: it lives on as part of the reader.
And there is another way that books, at least some of them, may keep on reincarnating.
If it is in some way a classic, a book can come back to life a second or third or fourth times, as a reissue or series of reissues.
These reissues may or may not be annotated, or presented with new introductions, afterwards, or footnotes. They may be translated to new languages, or published in new countries.
In some cases they are newly discovered by an enthusiastic editor, or made newly relevant by current events (as when, in 2017, George Orwell’s dystopian 1984, first published in 1949, began a bestseller).
Perhaps, in some cases, a reissue may be edited and updated.
Almost certainly the reissues will look different. They’ll have new cover art and design, different typefaces. In the case of children’s books, the genre in which most of my mother’s work falls, the reissues may have entirely new illustration.
Or, sometimes, even more strangely, the later reissues — having gone through several incarnations of new art — may return to the original illustration.
This is what is happening with Charlotte’s Sleepy Book, an incantatory invitation to night and sleep, which, in the simplest possible language, gently persuades children to rest.
THREE INCARNATIONS AND COUNTING: A CHRONOLOGY
The Sleepy Book‘s original 1958 illustrations are extraordinary, and still look shockingly contemporary. As stripped-down as Charlotte’s text, with a clean, fresh graphic simplicity, the art is in deep, hauntingly dusky hues, in themselves lulling, somber and sleepy but not scary. They were done by Bobri, a Polish artist (full name: Vladimir Bobri, 1898-1986). The three illustrations above, and two of those which follow, are all Bobri.
30 years later, Sleepy Book was re-issued for the second time, with new illustrations by Ilsa Plume.
To my eyes, these illustrations are cloyingly ordinary, bright simplistic pictures you might expect in a greeting card or an early reading textbook for children. To me, they are devoid of the mystery of Charlotte’s text, or, indeed, night itself.
Another 13 years passed after this version’s publication.
Then, in 2001, Sleepy Book came back to life again, this third time with paintings by Stefano Vitale.
This third set of pictures, paintings on boards through which the wood-grain occasionally shows, is in a saturated palette, vivid but still dark, peopled with characters, animals and human, and a bit fantastic.
I felt Vitale returned the text to its true nature, full of strange enchantment, dreamy and soothing. Though very different from Bobri’s, both seem to me in tune with Charlotte’s text in a way the Plume version was not. Like her lyrical, lullaby-like words, both these very different types of pictures invited young readers to open to sleep; to come home, unafraid, to darkness.
Another 12 years passed.
In November of 2013, Charlotte herself left the world. She died in her own bed, in her own home; as naturally as if answering the call to leave life was as natural as slipping into sleep at night, as perhaps it is, or at least, can be.
Three years later, the British publisher Bodleian published Sleepy Book, in the fall of 2016. With which illustrations? This was a surprise — with the Bobri originals! That same year, a bit later, a French reissue followed, then a Spanish one, then a Catalan.
And, in 2018, the Chinese edition will appear, also with the Bobri pictures.
Just before Christmas in 2017, I received this email:
Dear Ms Dragonwagon,
I’m an editor working at Everafter Books. Now I am working on the coming book Sleepy Book written by your mother Charlotte Zolotow, and it is due to be published in March, 2018. For I read your introduction for the book Say it and it’s really touching，I wonder if you could also write something for the Sleepy Book: What inspires Charlotte to write it? Is there any story behind? And is this book written for you? Or some beautiful memory between you and your mother. Anything you can tell…
I thought for some time about what I might say by way of introduction of my mother and her work to this new audience.
About how the feelings that flow between mothers and daughters who love each other are both particular and universal, and how Charlotte’s and my relationship contained elements of both.
About how night and day, and sleepiness and wakefulness, forever and always alternate.
About how these things are neither Chinese nor American, but human.
Here is what I wrote.
CULTIVATING SLEEPINESS IN A WAKEFUL WORLD
I knew Charlotte and her little girl well, and I still do. For Charlotte was my mother, and I, her little girl. Now Charlotte is dead (she died in 2013, at age 98), and I am sixty-five.
Yet when I re-read this book, she is still my young, pretty mother, and I am still her little girl. Simultaneously, we are all the other ages and roles and experiences we walked through over time.
Here is what I remember about not wanting to go to sleep: the night was dark and mysterious, somewhat scary but mostly deeply interesting. And in it, lying in bed, I was almost always awake for a long time, not sleepy.
There was after all much, each night, about which to be curious.
What was I to make of the way the shadows of the large maple tree, between our house and the Nichols’s, played on the ceiling, the street light behind causing it to cast shadows, which changed as the wind blew, and altered when there was a full moon?
And what of those twin circular moving planets of light that sometimes crossed the ceiling, with a whoosh outside, what were they?
I eventually figured this out: they were headlights; whenever a car traveled down Elm Place, those illuminated circles traveled above me.
Other questions the night brought up were less easily answered or explained. For when you are little you are not yet sure what is made-up and what is real.
For instance: turn out the bedroom light, and the sweet-potato plant with its heart-shaped leaves, looked exactly like a troll wearing a pointy hat.
Was it in fact a troll, possibly one which might do me harm, one clever enough to turn back into a sweet potato plant the second the lights were turned on? Or was it a sweet potato plant after all, sitting on the sill, the whole time?
Naturally, with so many questions, so much to see and think about, it was difficult to fall asleep.
Charlotte, like many parents, tried many things to persuade me to sleepiness. Here are some of them.
She brought me a glass of water if I called out, from the darkened bedroom, “I’m thirsty.”
She brought me half an apple, sliced in circles, laid out on a plate, and sprinkled with cinnamon, if I called out, from the darkened bedroom, “I’m hungry.”
And, sometimes, if after this, I called out, “But I’m not sleepy!” , sometimes she or my father (also a writer) would sometimes tell me a story.
My father’s stories had a strong narrative thread, and characters. For instance, I remember one about a skunk named Charlie. Tired of being made fun of, Charlie decides to sneak into my mother’s bedroom to steal some of her Chanel Number Five. My father’s stories were wildly amusing, and he told them in an excitable and exciting manner. Except, they left me even more awake than I was when he came into the room. (No, none of his stories were ever written down; he wrote for grown-ups, and the idea of saving and developing books for young readers from what he spun out off the cuff to his restive daughter, never occurred to any of us).
My mother’s were less stories than quiet, almost hypnotic murmurings, often repetitive. They had more in common with poems or lullabies than with beginning-middle-end narratives. Like my father, she made up what she said to me as she went along, but she spoke her enchantments calmingly, in a voice that was lower, slower, and more soporific than her normal voice. If this was less exciting than my father’s style, it nonetheless held my attention.
Often, as she spoke and I listened, I would interrupt, asking questions. I believe I wanted to fight off the sleepiness she was inducing; yet these interactions between us gave our night-time routine the soothing, reassuring quality of call-and-response. Though I asked, I listened. Word built on word and sentence on sentence, with logic and fascination, just interesting enough to steer my attention from the curiosities which lay in contemplating the night, just calming and repetitive enough to lure me towards slumber.
Once, in that slow, low, sleepy voice, she told me about bears, and how they hibernated in caves, all winter long.
I said, resistant, curious, and combative all at once, “What about horses?” For I loved horses.
She told me.
I asked her about fish, about birds… About dogs, like our poodle, Cleo. About cats, like Winifred, the calico who belonged to the Fieldses, across the street.
She told me, animal by animal, using her words and that special slow sleepy vocal quality.
We revisited this catechism of sleep many times, on many nights, with different animals.
Did she ever actually get to and say aloud the part about how human children sleep, the part that eventually became, when she finally wrote it down, and turned it from a night-time conversation into a timeless book, “But when little boys and little girls, when the night comes and the wind whispers gently in the trees and the stars sparkle and shine, sleep warm under their blankets in their beds” ?
I don’t know.
For if she did, by then I was asleep.
NOTHING IS WASTED
As I read and reread and cogitate on Charlotte’s writing as part of my work as her literary executor, I see how ceaselessly she mined her own experience, as a former child, and as the mother of children, for the raw material of her books. Often she overlaid both sources of childhood with the emotions sparked by events in adulthood, a process she often described as “a kind of double exposure.”
And although it was my late father, the show business writer Maurice Zolotow, who told me the words, “Nothing is wasted on the writer,” I see that my mother lived this as well.
It is this, the use of one’s own material, and the finding and opening of the safety deposit box in which that material resides in memory, that I try to assist students in experiencing in Fearless Writing, and the other workshops and classes I teach.
And I, too, live and discover and rediscover this: that as part of writing, every experience, including those that are difficult. is given meaning and purpose and does not go to waste.
This blog post is part of Crescent’s Nothing is Wasted on the Writer series.
Crescent’s Fearless Writing workshops are typically held quarterly, around the country. The next will be held in Bentonville, Arkansas, on February 9-11, 2018.
Most of the illustrations accompanying this post are from the Vladimir Bobri edition of Charlotte Zolotow’s Sleepy Book, except the covers by Ilsa Plume and Stefano Vitale. But here is one more picture by Vitale, of the sleeping fish. Compare it to Bobri’s sleeping fish, above.