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A Profile of Margaret McElderry
(This profile is an online extension of Chapter 26 of The C.I. Guide to Publishing Children's Books,
in which you will find other editor profiles)
by Harold Underdown
Note: This profile appeared in the 2004 second edition of the CIG, and was replaced by a profile that partly shifted the focus to Emma Dryden, after Margaret fully retired. Ironically, in light of the comment that some things "remain the same," Emma Dryden was herself let go in 2009, and now runs her own business, drydenbks. In sad news for the children's book community, Margaret died in February, 2011, at the age of 98. She was the last of her generation, and I feel honored to have known her. I am maintaining this profile in her memory. The information in it was correct as of 2009.
Having said repeatedly that so much has changed in children’s publishing, I now must say that some things, happily, remain the same. One is that Margaret K. McElderry continues to edit children’s books. She may be the last of the generation of editors with a background as a librarian to remain active, having started her career in publishing as Editor of Children’s Books at Harcourt, Brace in 1945. Margaret now edits a few books from home while Emma Dryden oversees the Margaret K. McElderry imprint at Simon & Schuster.
Margaret K. McElderry Books today is a small imprint within a large company, publishing 35 or so books per year. Margaret personally edits five to seven of them, and Emma most of the rest. The list is about half picture books, some of them imported, and almost half middle-grade and young adult fiction, with a few poetry and nonfiction titles. Like Holiday House, they publish primarily for the school and library market and for the independent bookstores. Margaret comments that she continues to publish the books she cares about, unaffected by the wider trends in the children’s book market.
Margaret K. McElderry’s tip for writers is a simple but powerful one: “Read, read, read."
What has Margaret published? She’s known as an editor who did a lot to bring in books from foreign publishers, starting with German, Swiss, and Scandinavian authors in translation—such works as Margot Benary-Isbert’s The Ark. She brought in authors from Britain and Australia, including Mary Norton, Margaret Mahy, Lucy Boston, and Patricia Wrightson. She is also known for working with and developing writers and illustrators such as Irene Haas, Carol Fenner, Sarah Ellis, Eloise McGraw, Louise Borden, and X. J. Kennedy. Though she didn’t say this, books she has edited have won just about every award there is to win, from Caldecotts and Newberys on down.
How is it that she was left alone to publish what she wanted to? Perhaps it’s because what she wanted to publish so often seemed to be what children wanted to read, and librarians wanted to buy. Or as she comments wryly, “It doesn’t hurt to have a book that sells awfully well every once in a while.” And so she has continued to do what she has always done, though perhaps now with more very young picture books, reflecting the greater demand for them today. In her role as editor-at-large, she concentrates on editing, and leaves the administrative work to Emma, who reports that she, like every other editor at a corporate publisher I talked to, spends a good bit of her workday in meetings. Margaret gets to do what she likes best, working with “unusual and interesting people.” In her long career, she’s always felt that “it’s a privilege to work with authors and artists.” That humility and her lifelong love of books help to explain how she’s been able to help so many people create their best work.
More about Margaret McElderry: Once Upon a Time and for Years Afterward: A profile by Eden Ross Lipson; A short biography of Margaret McElderry, from School Library Journal; Remembering Margaret McElderry, from Publishers Weekly; A collection of covers of books edited by Margaret McElderry, from Pinterest (compiled by Emma D. Dryden.
This profile supplements Chapter 26 of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, which introduces the people who work in those "ivory towers," with general information about the kinds of people who work as editors and what they do, and profiles of specific editors and the company where they work.
Copyright 2001, 2004, 2011, and 2013 by Harold Underdown. Copyright policy
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