Sunday, November 24, 2013

Women of Letters

Within a few short days of each other, three great women authors have just died: Barbara Park on November 15, Doris Lessing on November 17, and Charlotte Zolotow on November 19. I'd like to take a moment remembering them and what they've meant to me and to the writing world.

Barbara Park helped me raise my children. I don't think I'd be the same or my kids would be the same without spunky Junie B. Jones, who started kindergarten with my daughter. They rode on the same stupid smelly bus and were best friends with That Grace and richie Lucille. My daughter and Junie B. bonded over their loud-crying baby brothers together, and lost their first teeth together. Junie B. was not a proper girl: she used language incorrectly and got dirty and held grudges and sometimes lied. We loved her for this. And she was hilarious. I would often laugh so hard reading these books to my kids that I'd have to stop and let someone else take over. We bought the audiobooks to play in the car. I read the books to both kids when they were tiny, and when they were learning to read they turned back to the books as early readers. And while my children never developed the terrible habits critics were so sure Junie B readers would pick up (like saying "worstest" and "thinked" and getting the Pledge of Allegiance wrong), I have continued to this day to talk a little bit like Junie B. Plus also, I am glad of that. Barbara Park was wonderfully witty and irreverent, and was instrumental in teaching my children to love books. Park was only 66 when she died, taken far too soon. She died of ovarian cancer.

Also critical to me as a parent was Charlotte Zolotow, who wrote magical, ethereal picture books. She was most famous for Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, but my favorite book of hers was When the Wind Stops, which delicately touches on the issue of mortality. Using the wind as a metaphor for life, Zolotow explains that nothing ever really vanishes, but appears in another place or another form. From the book description: "Rain goes back into the clouds to create new storms, waves fold back upon the sea to become new waves, and the day moves on to make way for the night, bringing the darkness and stars for the little boy to dream in." It's almost Buddhist in its viewpoint, and the gorgeous artwork by Stefano Vitale, painted on wood, perfectly matches the lovely language and flow of the story. I must have read the book a hundred times to my kids, and when I mentioned Zolotow's passing to my husband, he got mistily nostalgic and said he, too, remembers being asked to read that book over and over. It was a perennial favorite. We still own it; I will keep it for my grandchildren. Unlike Barbara Park, Charlotte Zolotow had a good long run of it: she was 98 years old when she died.

Doris Lessing also had a good long run of it: she was 94 when she died. I haven't read Lessing yet, something I intend to remedy quickly, but she still means something to me, as she does to every woman writer. She is an author who is female but is recognized first for her work. The London Times ranked her fifth on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945," with no gender attribute between "greatest" and "writers." This is a perk every male writer gets automatically—when is the last time you heard of "men's fiction" or heard an author described as a "great male author?" But for women artists, it is rare to acknowledged without reference to your bits.

Lessing broke a lot of rules: she was a communist, she abandoned two of her children, she didn't attend school past the age of fourteen, she declined damehood. To prove how snobbish the literary world is, how difficult it is for new writers to break in, she tried to publish two novels under a pseudonym. Sure enough, they were rejected by her own publisher, though later picked up by another publisher. She was not especially friendly to the feminist movement, but nonetheless paved the way, merely by her perseverance and success, for other women writers to be taken seriously as writers, rather than as decorative dabblers in the arts.

So for all you did: thanks, ladies. You will be missed.


  1. What a beautiful and sad post, Steph. Of the three authors, I only knew Barbara Park (my daughter also loves Junie B.) but that book you quoted at the end looks gorgeous, and so touching. I definitely want to read it!

  2. I've not read Lessing (Do you know what books she's written?) but I have read both Park and Zolotow with my daughter. When the Wind Stops is a very beautiful book with so much to say. I was never a big fan of Junie B. and neither was my daughter, but we gave her a try! Anyway, you're right in saying that they've all three contributed mightily to the literary world. Yes, they will be missed.


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