Charlotte Pomerantz: Inventive Children’s Book Author Who Brought an Ingenious Use of Language and Sly Subversive Touch to Her Stories

From a New York Times obit by Neil Ganzlinger headlined “Charlotte Pomerantz, Inventive Children’s Book Author, Dies at 92′;

Charlotte Pomerantz, who brought an ingenious use of language and the occasional sly subversive touch to stories about mud-loving pigs and parachuting cats written for young children, died on Sunday at her home in Charlottesville, Va. It was her 92nd birthday.

Ms. Pomerantz wrote 35 children’s books, some in prose, some in verse. Her clever manipulation of words gave young readers a laugh and food for thought, as in this ditty from “Halfway to Your House” (1993, illustrated by Gabrielle Vincent):

Annabelle peered

in the looking glass

and said,

“Am I not the prettiest lass?”

“Alas,” said the glass,

“that isn’t quite true:

The lass in the glass

is as pretty as you.”

One of her most popular books was “The Piggy in the Puddle”(1974, illustrated by James Marshall), a dizzying feat of wordplay about a young pig who defied all entreaties from her family to come out of the mud:

See the piggy,

See the puddle,

See the muddy little puddle.

See the piggy in the middle

Of the muddy little puddle.

See her dawdle, see her diddle

In the muddy, muddy middle.

See her waddle, plump and little,

In the very merry middle.

That book, used in countless library story times ever since, was a rebel’s tale: Not only did its young heroine refuse to come out of the puddle or use soap, but by its end her family had also seen the beauty of muddiness and joined her in the ooze.

Ms. Pomerantz knew something about nonconformity: She was married to Carl Marzani, who in the early days of cold-war witch hunting had gone to prison for not revealing a past Communist Party connection to government loyalty examiners. Before she started writing children’s books, she worked at a leftist publishing house he had helped found, where her projects included editing a book of essays called “A Quarter-Century of Un-Americana, 1938-1963: A Tragico-Comical Memorabilia of HUAC,” referring to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.

Her children’s books sometimes had one social or political cause or another woven into them. “The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo” (1971, illustrated by Jose Aruego) told the true story of the ecological aftermath of DDT spraying — in verse. “Mangaboom” (1997, illustrated by Anita Lobel) was about a boy who meets a 19-foot-tall woman with a mind of her own.

“The political and feminist undercurrents are there because I’m the sum of all my experiences,” Ms. Pomerantz said, “and those are the things I experienced.”

Julia L. Mickenberg, a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, included the story about the parachuting cats in “Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature,” a 2008 book she edited with Philip Nel.

“Charlotte definitely had a ‘little rebel’ streak in her,” Professor Mickenberg said. As for the cats story — they were dropped by parachute into a village to control a rampant rat population resulting from the cascading effects of DDT — she said: “I was drawn to it for several different reasons. The first was that it is an environmentalist story, and we wanted more of those, but it is also an environmentalist story written as an extended poem with rhyme but also, and more importantly, with humor and creativity.”

Charlotte Inez Pomerantz was born in Brooklyn to Abraham and Phyllis (Cohen) Pomerantz. Her father was a pioneering lawyer in the field of shareholder lawsuits against large corporations; her mother was a homemaker.

Charlotte grew up in Brooklyn and in New Rochelle, N.Y., where, in her last year of elementary school, she had a formative experience: Her teacher read aloud a story Charlotte had written and asked her classmates to write their comments; she ended up with a collection of glowing mini-reviews.

“I don’t recall the story, but I do recall the pure happiness with which I read these comments,” she said. “These weren’t my parents; this was a whole classroom of kids who hardly knew me.”

She graduated from high school in New Rochelle and earned a bachelor’s degree at Sarah Lawrence College in 1953. After an assortment of jobs, by the early 1960s she was working at Marzani & Munsell, a left-wing publishing house whose founders included Carl Marzani. She and Mr. Marzani married in 1966. (Her earlier marriage, to John Meisenbach, had ended in divorce.)

Her first children’s book, “The Bear Who Couldn’t Sleep,” was published in 1965.

“I started writing because it was the only thing I was ever good at,” Ms. Pomerantz said.

Her books reflected all sorts of influences, including James Joyce: One book, “Here Comes Henny,” was inspired by a passage in “Finnegans Wake,” her daughter, Dr. Marzani, said. Ms. Pomerantz’s son, Daniel, had asthma problems as a child that led the family to spend winters in Puerto Rico, and some of her stories were set there or incorporated Spanish.

Dr. Marzani said that her mother had also once written a play, “Jonah and the Humpback Whale,” and that she had recently been arranging a performance of it in her apartment building in Charlottesville — to be held at high tea on her birthday.

“The group had been practicing for months,” she said, “meeting weekly, with Mom directing from her wheelchair.”

Her mother, she said, had lapsed into unconsciousness in the days before her death, but the group performed the piece for her at her bedside anyway the day before her death. She died a few minutes after midnight on her birthday, but the group also carried out her wish and performed it again later that day at high tea….

In 1978 Ms. Pomerantz wrote a whimsical article for The New York Times in which she envisioned how a modern-day book publisher might respond to a submission from Mother Goose.

“The humorous touches are fun,” the editor’s “Dear Ms. Goose” letter went, “yet there is a fine line between the silly and the senseless, the fanciful and the outrageous — in short, between nonsense and rubbish.”

It went on to criticize Ms. Goose’s rhymes and other choices. (“Bo-Peep seems a rather far-fetched name for a child to identify with. How about Jennifer or Amy?”) As for “Little Miss Muffet,” the letter advised that no child would know what “curds” means and suggested substituting “frozen yogurt.”

“Also,” the letter advised, “spiders don’t sit; they dangle.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

 

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