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of the Center for Children's Books

Zena B. Sutherland, 1915-2002

It's always hard to write a farewell. This one will be particularly difficult, as Zena's tolerance for traditional elegiac elements such as reverence and sentimentality was nonexistent, but it's impossible that such a passing be left unmarked.

More formal obituaries will cover in more detail the tremendous personal achievements such as her work at The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, the Saturday Review, and the Chicago Tribune; the editing of edition after edition of Children and Books, the key textbook in the field; the contribution to a multitude of committees; and the creation of the O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the Sutherland Lecture. Then there are the less quantifiable triumphs: the early championing of controversial and groundbreaking books such as Harriet the Spy and Where the Wild Things Are, the constant support of enterprising and daring children's literature, the continued and contagious enthusiasm for children's books.

Today, though, I'm thinking about Zena from a more personal standpoint. She was the editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books from 1958 to 1985, twenty-seven years. When I first began working at The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books in 1989, I hadn't even lived as long as she'd been editor. Having passed on the editorship to Betsy Hearne, Zena was listed on the masthead as one of the associate editors, but it's ludicrous to imagine that such a measured bureaucratic term conveyed the impact of her presence and contributions, especially on the novice that I then was.

I knew about the tremendous fund of experience and information, of course, or at least I thought I did. I didn't know about her throaty purr of a voice, the salacious, seductive laugh that I would have killed to have, the combination of uncompromising intelligence and luxuriantly extravagant gesture. Maurice Sendak called her a "sociable and witty blonde bombshell"; she was also magnetic and regal, like a madly racy Queen Victoria.

And it turned out I really didn't know about the extent of the experience and information. Zena knew everybody. And not just in the world of children's literature--she knew all of Hyde Park, all of the University of Chicago, and probably all of everywhere else to boot. A casual reference to a building would elicit a fountain of information about its owner and residents (and perhaps some interesting insights about their personal lives), and it was always absolutely compelling; in Zena's world, everyone seemed to appear in rich colors and lead existences of vitality and fascination.

She certainly always did. The world will be drabber without you, Zena. Vale.

           --Deborah Stevenson

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This page was last updated on June 13, 2002.