Margot Zemach Brought Stories to Life with Her Art

Children’s author and illustrator Margot Zemach was born into a show business family--her father was a theater director, and her mother was an actress. Growing up, she drew imaginatively costumed characters to retell her favorite fairy stories and folktales, something she continued to do as an adult that would lead her to worldwide fame.

As she wrote in her autobiography, Self-Portrait: Margot Zemach: "I can create my own theater and be in charge of everything. When there is a story I want to tell in pictures, I find my actors, build the sets, design the costumes and light the stage. . . . If I can get it all together and moving, it will come to life. The actors will work with each other, and the dancers will hear the music and dance. When the book closes, the curtain comes down."

A Family Draws Together

Art continued to be her passion as she grew up, and she won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to study in Vienna, Austria, where she met her future husband, Harvey Fischtrom. Harvey was also a Fulbright scholar. Besides his career as an academic, he wrote children’s stories under the name HarveThe Teeny Tiny Woman Zemach which Margot illustrated, and their collaborations went on to win major awards. During the first years of their marriage, they traveled around Europe and eventually settled first in London, then in Boston where Harve taught history and social sciences, and finally they came to live in Berkeley, California.

During these years of travel and raising a young family, Margot was illustrating for other highly-regarded children’s authors, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alvin Schwartz, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and Randall Jarrell. Her own first book, written and self-illustrated in 1963, was an adaptation of the folktale, The Three Sillies. She went on to write and self-illustrate many books, while continuing to illustrate award-winning stories with her husband until his death in 1974. Her four daughters, including Kaethe Zemach-Bersin--who grew up to be a children’s book illustrator as well, remember their mother during the years after their father’s death as being always available for listening... and always working. Her workspace was in the very center of their home.*

Cultural Controversy

In 1982, her blending of African-American folk motifs, Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven, won the Commonwealth Club’s Silver Medal for Literature. This Duffy and the Devilstory of a working man and his mule’s adventures in the afterlife was not well-received by many in the library community who did not care for the comic portrayal of characters in what appeared to be a segregated Heaven, full of stereotypical elements. The author’s insistence that she had used authentic folk motifs and her publisher’s cry of censorship did not change its fate. This was one of the few books by Zemach which was not embraced in public libraries.

Interestingly, her Caldecott Honor Book, It Could Always Be Worse: A Yiddish Folktale, was later reworked by another writer as It Couldn’t Be Worse to exclude the wise rabbi character, changing him into a wise fish-seller, and the principal character asking advice was changed from the husband to the wife.  Presumably this would broaden the readership base, but in remaking the story, of course it was denuded of much of its cultural identity--although this does not seem to have bothered a later generation of reviewers.

Back to Rhyme and Rhythm

One of Margot Zemach’s last books, Some from the Sun, Some from the Moon, is an illustrated collection of traditional rhymes and songs for children. Booklist’s review was extremely positive:

“Speaking of her work as an illustrator, Caldecott Medal-winner Margot Zemach once said, ‘I want to give life, movement, and humor to the words on paper.’ How brilliantly she succeeds is evidenced by the richness her pictures lend to the traditional poems and songs in her final book.... hums with a generosity of emotional energy derived from a gift for composition and, especially, for color. Even the still life that adorns the dedication page demonstrates Zemach's genius for color, which makes each image so eye-catching and beautiful. An appended album of drawings, autobiographical notes, and family photos make this book an especially lovely tribute as well as an invitation to new generations to discover Zemach's truly spectacular talent.”

Fast Facts about Margot Zemach

Born: November 30, 1931 in Los Angeles, California

Parents: Benjamin (a theater director) and Elizabeth (an actress; maiden name, Dailey) ZemachIt Could Always Be Worse

Family: married Ralph Novak, 1953 (died, 1954); married Harvey Fischtrom (an author under pseudonym Harve Zemach), January 29, 1957 (died November, 1974); children: (second marriage) Kaethe Zemach-Bersin, Heidi, Rachel, Rebecca.

Education: Attended Los Angeles County Art Institute, Jepson Institute of Art, Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, Kahn Art Institute, Los Angeles, and Chouinard Art Institute, Los Angeles; attended Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, 1955-56.

Selected Awards: Fulbright scholarship, 1955-56; Salt: A Russian Tale received first prize at the New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival, 1965; American Library Association Notable Children's Book, 1966, for Mommy, Buy Me a China Doll, 1967, for Mazel and Shlimazel; or, The Milk of a Lioness, 1968, for When Shliemel Went to Warsaw, and Other Stories, and 1971, for A Penny a Look: An Old Story; The Judge: An Untrue Tale was a Caldecott Honor Book and an American Library Association Notable Children's Book, 1970; Simon Boom Gives a Wedding was named to the New York Times' Best Illustrated Books list, 1972, and received the Lewis Carroll Bookshelf Award; Duffy and the Devil: A Cornish Tale received the Caldecott Medal, 1974 and received the Lewis Carroll Bookshelf Award; Hush, Little Baby was chosen to represent the United States by the International Board on Books for Young People, 1978; It Could Always Be Worse: A Yiddish Folktale was named to the New York Times's Best Illustrated Books list, 1978, and was a Caldecott Honor Book; Self-Portrait: Margot Zemach was an honor book for the Golden Globe/Horn Book Award, 1979; Margot Zemach was the United States nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1980.

Died: May 21, 1989 in Berkeley, California, of Lou Gehrig's disease

Click here for a list of all of Margot Zemach’s books owned by the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

Find More in CRRL’s Online Research Section:

From Biography in Context:

"Margot Zemach." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Gale Biography In Context. Web.

"Margot Zemach." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Gale, 2002. Gale Biography In Context. Web.


“Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven: Children's Book Fans Smoldering Debate.” Susan E. Brandehoff.
The Three Little PigsAmerican Libraries , Vol. 14, No. 3 (Mar., 1983), pp. 130-132

“On My Mind: ‘Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven’: Publisher of Book Answers Charges, Adds Views.”
Stephen Roxburgh. American Libraries , Vol. 14, No. 5 (May 1983), p. 315

From Literature Resource Center

*Zemach, Kaethe, and Margot Zemach. "'How Will I Show It?': Zemach on Zemach." The Horn Book Magazine Sept. 2001: 516.Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.

Also on the Web:

“Arts: A Jewish History Picture Show,” by Julie Gruenbaum Fax in Hadassah Magazine

Kaethe Zemach Biography (1958-) - Sidelights

“Margot Zemach, 57, Author, Dies; Also Illustrated Books for Children,” New York Times obituary