Longtime friends and colleagues gathered at the New York Public Library last Friday afternoon to honor legendary editor and publisher Margaret K. McElderry, in a program called “Lessons from a Literary Legend.” The atmosphere was celebratory and at many times, jovial, as speakers told stories, reminisced, and paid tribute to a woman who, as the NYPL’s Jeanne Lamb said, “touched all of us and inspired us.”
Karen Wojtyla, currently the editorial director of Margaret K. McElderry Books, called MKM Books a “small but fierce” imprint, which, she said, “is not a bad description of Margaret herself.” Referring to McElderry’s “amazing legacy,” Wojtyla said, “I hope we can continue to publish the kind of literature to which she was fiercely dedicated.”
Children's book consultant and retired librarian Amy Kellman, who shared a hometown – Pittsburgh – with McElderry, said she got to know her well through international congresses for IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People), an organization McElderry was extremely active in for decades. “She was a charmer,” Kellman said, “whether it was taxi drivers in Oslo or Intourist guides in Leningrad. She had a wide range of things that interested her. Margaret was my friend for 40 years. We worked together, we played together, we traveled together, and most of all, we laughed together.”
Illustrator and cartoonist Edward Sorel also spoke of McElderry’s pioneering efforts to publish books from nations around the world. “She was one of the first editors to figure out how to co-produce her books with European publishers and later with Japanese publishers,” he said. “And she brought a new sensibility to illustration.” Jokingly, Sorel recalled that McElderry had published his very first book for children, “and it was such a success that 40 years later she published another one.”
Literary agent Tracey Adams, whose grandfather had been a friend of McElderry, and who was hired by Margaret as her editorial assistant, said that working for her “was an honor, and also a challenge,” to much laughter from the audience. Years later, she said, many times a day, she asks herself, “WWMD: what would Margaret do?” Recalling an error she’d made as an assistant, Adams said, “When you work for Margaret and make a mistake, you will never make that mistake again.” But she also spoke of what she had learned from her, and the many good times. “She taught me to face every challenge as an adventure, but most of all she taught me to never ever forget to laugh.”
Marketing director Michelle Fadlalla said she met McElderry when she came to Simon and Schuster’s children’s marketing department in 1998, and called her “a powerful force and a loving teacher. She was a brilliant and dedicated editor who saw her books and authors as gifts. She was an example for me in knowing what children’s books are all about.”
“I dedicated my first book to her,” said novelist and longtime family friend John Burnham Schwartz, who spoke of how lucky he felt to have grown up knowing her. “If there was ever a remarkable American life, if you were a woman, it was Margaret. When Margaret laughed it was like experiencing a trunk unpacked before you. She knew exactly who she was and what she believed in. She was the most non-neurotic person I’ve ever met, and I’m certain I will never know another like her.”
Emma Dryden, former publisher of Margaret K. McElderry Books, told of her mentor’s enthusiastic interest in knowing everyone’s story. “Margaret didn’t ever look beyond us to see who else was in the room, to find someone more interesting, more clever, more promising—because Margaret knew we each have a story to tell—and she wanted to hear it. She cared deeply to know a new person as much as she cared to know a new story.” Dryden spoke warmly of McElderry as both an editor and a friend, saying she “never demanded an author do something that felt wrong, never insisted a colleague or friend do something they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing. Her genius was in asking the most insightful, sensitive questions that gave all of us the confidence to reach back into our pasts, admit our desires and dreams, and look ahead to our futures. Her interest and her compassion left authors, colleagues, and friends alike feeling we had no choice but to do and be our very best.”
And the final speaker, author Susan Cooper, shared stories of a long and very close friendship. “We laughed together like idiots for half a century,” she said. “You fall into friendship just as you fall into love, and sometimes it lasts longer.” Cooper said she was McElderry’s author before they had ever met, and McElderry remained her editor until the end. “She was a wonderful editor,” Cooper said, “intuitive, tough when necessary. She lived for books, for persuading people to tell stories, and for taking them to children.” And she told of their conversation just before McElderry’s death, when McElderry asked her, “Am I dying with dignity?” “Margaret darling, you’ve always done everything with dignity,” Cooper said she told her. “I’ve had a good, long life,” McElderry said. Then, Cooper said, she gave a grin. “Well, I don’t know about good, but certainly very long.” With the audience in both laughter and tears, the program came to a close.
An audio recording of the event is available here.