Publisher and editor Margaret K. McElderry died on February 14 at the age of 98. We asked some of her authors, colleagues, and friends to share their thoughts and memories.
Susan Cooper, author
Margaret and I first met in a restaurant in Greenwich Village that we never forgot, because it had a crazy-looking tree growing out of its basement area and because the friendship that began there lasted a lifetime. A week before she died, we were recalling that tree. Then she lay there in silence for a long time.
I said, “What are you thinking about?”
“You and me,” she said.
She had bought my first children’s book from Jonathan Cape, in the U.K., in 1964. After moving to the U.S., I sent her an adult novel and asked why nobody wanted to publish it, and she said, “It’s a children’s book, with the wrong title,” and published it as Dawn of Fear. Later, when I sent her what I called apologetically “a really weird book,” she said it too had the wrong title, and published it as The Dark Is Rising. We went on like that for the next 30 years. I owe her my life as a writer.
She was the dream editor: intuitive, supportive, patient, tough when necessary. When we writers and artists did our best work, she made us feel we had connected with some deep magic. She was fascinated by people; even the most casual acquaintance would find those wide eyes fixed on him as she asked more questions than an analyst. Her 98 years brought people throughout publishing and all round the world to respect and love her. She was loved even by people who found her a singularly demanding employer.
As for her, she loved language, her friends, Nantucket, white wine, New York, the sea and Democrats—and all her friends’ children, including mine, thought of her as their aunt.
Most of all she loved laughter.
She was my best friend, and I miss her.
Emma Dryden, former publisher, Margaret K. McElderry Books
Margaret K. McElderry was a perfectionist who did not believe in the achievement of perfection. She certainly expected the very best of everyone with whom she worked, as well as of herself, and while she strove for consummate professionalism, she did not set out to inspire authors or illustrators or her staff to be perfect. Rather, she set out to inspire us to do our best and then to reach higher and dig deeper to see whether we might do something even better the next time.
In 1990, when I’d been with the McElderry Books imprint for a little over a week, Margaret was reading a letter I’d written to an author upon acceptance of their final manuscript, in which I’d gushed about how “perfect” the manuscript was. She stopped and cautioned me that rather than ever telling an author or illustrator their work is perfect, it would be advisable to tell them it’s excellent— because only then would they try harder the next time to reach that unattainable level of “perfection,” thereby pushing themselves to become stronger and better writers and illustrators with each subsequent project. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
What I remember most about my friend and mentor is how she approached her work and her life with a wholehearted sense of humor. She used to say, “If we’re not having fun, it’s not worth doing.” While there were certainly times when we weren’t having a whole lot of fun (as I recall, the movement away from telex to fax was a particularly thorny time for us in the MKM offices; and we gave up on moving away from the Dictaphone altogether!), there were plenty more times (usually on Friday afternoons) when we’d begin to tell stories, tell jokes, and laugh laugh laugh. This was our sustenance and these special times when work and play blended seamlessly were yet another means to achieving excellence—an excellence of spirit.
Retaining our commitment to excellence in the books we write, illustrate and publish, is the very best way to remember Margaret K. McElderry and keep her spirit alive.
Susan Hirschman, former publisher, Greenwillow Books
I first met Margaret in 1954. She was talking at a Young Publishers meeting in someone’s bedroom on the West Side. I was a brand-new secretary in the children’s department at Knopf. Margaret was distinguished and old. She was 38. That evening that I knew that when I grew up I wanted to be like Margaret McElderry. But it was impossible. There was and is no one like Margaret McElderry. I had a foolish wish, but I had good taste.
I loved and admired Margaret for more than 50 years, and I am pretty certain that she knew it. That makes me happy. I have so many memories of her that I could fill PW for a long time. The best of them are stories Margaret told me of a time when she was the same age as I was when we met. They are Anne Carroll Moore stories, and Margaret was a master storyteller. Some are from a later time, and they are pretty good too. Emma has said Margaret’s death was a loss for all of us. That says it all.
Tracey Adams, literary agent
Growing up, family stories often involved someone named Derry, a classmate of my grandmother’s at Mount Holyoke. Approaching my graduation from the same school exactly 60 years later, I fell in love with children’s book publishing. To my embarrassment, my grandmother insisted on arranging a meeting for me with Derry. I didn’t know that Derry was Margaret McElderry. I found myself nervously walking into Margaret’s corner office at Macmillan. And in about two minutes, we were laughing at a story of how they used to sneak cigarettes behind the President’s house at Mount Holyoke. I was at ease, and I had a new friend. This gift is what made Margaret so special to so many of us. Margaret loved getting to know people and their stories. Years after, she liked to tell the story of how my grandmother set us up. “And I’m so very glad she did, Tracey,” she’d say with that twinkle in her eye that I loved and can still see.
I was honored to eventually become Margaret’s assistant, and I can’t emphasize enough how much of what I learned from her is present every day at Adams Literary. The way we work with authors and publishers, the co-agents and friends we have around the world, even many phrases we use (I call them “MKMisms”), all come from Margaret.
I was eager to learn, and Macmillan paid for me to take publishing seminars at the Children’s Book Council. After Macmillan merged with Simon & Schuster, I was told that our new company wouldn’t pay for these classes. This wasn’t something a young editor could afford. I didn’t mention it to Margaret because there was enough change happening already—I didn’t want to upset her. The day before a CBC seminar, she asked why I wasn’t going. Without missing a beat, she reached for her personal checkbook, expecting a full report the next day of all I’d learned, of course.
Thank you for the education, the friendship, and the laughter, Margaret. I hope to always make you proud. Onward and upward! (That’s an MKMism.)
Neal Porter, editorial director, Neal Porter Books, Roaring Brook Press
In the spring of 1980 I joined Atheneum as library services director. There I had the great fortune to work alongside two children’s book luminaries, Jean Karl and Margaret McElderry. Both were extraordinary editors and wonderful teachers. Margaret became my friend. A couple of years later Alfred A. Knopf, Jr., the company’s chairman, took me aside and said that we ought to begin planning for Margaret’s retirement—she was 68 at the time. I suspected she wasn’t going anywhere. By 1985 the company had been sold to Macmillan, and Jean had retired. Margaret carried on. Within a year or two Pat Knopf had retired; Margaret carried on. Some years later Macmillan was sold to Simon and Schuster and pretty much disappeared; Margaret carried on much as she always had, publishing memorable books, traveling the world on behalf of the industry, winning awards, and charming just about anyone who crossed her path. Recent articles have referred to Margaret as a “doyenne” and a “grande dame.” I never really thought of her as grand—she was warm, generous, extremely funny and on occasions, bawdy. And brilliant.
Louise Borden, author
When I tell students that my editor was born in the same year the Titanic sank, I have their attention. I first met MKM 82 years later, at a bookseller meeting in Washington, D.C. I knew of Margaret’s venerable lists and I was struck by her graciousness and those amazingly blue eyes.
The next Christmas, I sent her The Little Ships, a WWII story. I sensed that of all editors, she would have that intangible knowing. She published the book and we formed a creative bond that would inspire many more McElderry titles. Margaret became the light on my writing road. She had such vision, and understood the emotional resonance of stories.
I’d write to Margaret from Dunkirk or Bruges or from her Shepherd Market in London where she lived during the war, and after her move from Washington Square to York Avenue (the coffee table was still piled high with books), our visits in NYC or phone calls continued. Margaret always asked: “What are you working on now?”
I called MKM on her birthdays, and I called her on 9-11. What an extraordinary mentor I have lost. My Valentine.
Margaret’s style was tucked into the cards, dated, signed and clipped to each F&G or printing (“Let it roll forever!”) or review. Even her signature was distinctive. Last winter, I showed Margaret my Kindle, and we downloaded a novel by John Burnham Schwartz in seconds. MKM held the new technology in her hands: “Just astonishing!”
I went to S&S in July 2001 to see the art for America Is. On a flag, I saw MKM’s yellow Post-it: “51 stars, delete one.” I counted the tiny stars, to check for myself. After all, Margaret was 89. But those blue eyes hadn’t lost their editorial sharpness. There was an extra star on that one flag.
We are the lucky ones: generations of her readers, colleagues, and friends. Margaret’s name is on my books. The echo of her voice is at my desk. Astonishing.
Virginia Duncan, publisher, Greenwillow Books
One of my most precious memories of Margaret McElderry is having dinner with her and Susan Hirschman at Windows on the World. All three of us had summer birthdays, and we used to celebrate jointly at restaurants with views. How I wish I had thought to duct-tape a recorder under that table. Stupid, stupid. At Macmillan, where I started in publishing, Bradbury Press was at one point situated between McElderry Books and Atheneum. Margaret McElderry on one side; Jean Karl on the other! Margaret—wearing white jeans and a big blue shirt, perfect for Florida—confessing that presenting at sales conference never, ever got any easier. Margaret following me down the fire stairs with great good humor when the alarm went off on a Saturday. Margaret—fit as a fiddle after knee-replacement surgery, skipping out of the office to keep her weekly hair appointment (did her head look as though she had been licked by a cow, she once asked me upon her return). Margaret always showing us by example how it should be done. Why do I have a memory of Margaret, with sparkling eyes, in the middle of some story, leaning back in her chair and tossing nuts into her mouth? Margaret McElderry was extraordinarily generous to me, to my family, and to the authors I worked with, and I feel so very lucky to have known her. Thank you, Margaret.
Leonard S. Marcus, historian and author
When I met Margaret McElderry in the 1980s, I was a young reviewer and she was a publisher in the fourth decade of an already legendary career. For a legend, Margaret was surprisingly easy to meet, and to talk with. This was partly because she genuinely enjoyed the company of young people and also because she was such a practiced storyteller, with a wry, offhand delivery and endless supply of anecdotes that typically poked gentle fun at her while subtly showcasing one of her prized authors.
Not everything amused Margaret, however. In 1993, when we sat down in her office at Macmillan for our Horn Book interview, Margaret abruptly turned the tables by starting things off with a pointed question for me. She had just read my biography of Margaret Wise Brown, admired the book, but wondered where exactly I had gotten my information about her former mentor, the New York Public Library’s Anne Carroll Moore. In the years before World War II, Margaret had worked as assistant to “Miss Moore,” the library’s first head of children’s services and herself a legendary figure. In particular Margaret wanted to know my source for the stories about Nicholas, the wooden Dutch doll that Moore was said, rather oddly, to have set a special place for at her dinner table and otherwise to have treated as a real person (and not merely for the entertainment of children). For the next several minutes, I proceeded to cite my sources and describe my research methods in exhaustive detail. Margaret listened intently. Then, to my great relief, she grinned—and invited me to ask her any question I wished.
The last time Margaret and I spoke at length was in 2003, as I was writing the introduction to The Borrowers’ 50th-anniversary edition. Margaret had published Mary Norton’s The Borrowers at Harcourt, Brace in 1953, a year after its first appearance in England, where it had won the Carnegie Medal. I had noticed two major differences between the U.K. and American first editions. It was obvious why Margaret had replaced the dour English illustrations by Diana Stanley with more upbeat, theatrical drawings by Joe and Beth Krush. But what, I wondered, had become of the very first paragraph of chapter one? It was missing from the Harcourt, Brace edition. I asked Margaret about this. “I thought it wasn’t needed,” Margaret replied. “Mary Norton agreed.” As a publisher, Margaret McElderry knew, better than most, what children needed in their books and she knew it for longer than anybody.
Ann Bobco, executive art director, Simon & Schuster
As the daughter of a librarian I have always loved books, but meeting (and being able to work with) someone who had touched my childhood so directly is something I will never forget. Having been her art director for over 15 years was a privilege. By the time I came to work with Margaret, in late 1994, she had truly made an impressive mark on the world of children’s books. This was brought home to me in a very personal way one evening in 1995. She’d invited my husband and me to her apartment for drinks. In those days she occupied the parlor floor and the English basement of a regal townhouse (very “Henry James”), looking out at Washington Square. Once inside her apartment we spent time admiring the rooms on the upper floor and then slowly headed downstairs, stopping at each step to look closely at various drawings and paintings she’d acquired from the many illustrators she’d worked with.
At the bottom of the stairs a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled the wall ahead. I went over to it and began scanning. The Borrowers by Mary Norton stopped my scan. That was one of my all-time favorite books as a child. Seeing it here flashed me back to that large world of small people who survived by their ingenuity. I’d not known that Margaret had been responsible for bringing it to the United States from Britain in the early ’50s! I was thrilled. Turning to tell Margaret my connection to this particular book, I was rewarded by her smile of pleasure.
Frank Sloan, retired editorial director
Margaret played a pivotal role in introducing me to the world of children’s books. The year was 1948. I was 11 years old. My father was a book designer for Harcourt Brace and he became friends with a delightful lady at Harcourt named Margaret McElderry. She used to come to Brooklyn to socialize with other publishing friends as well as my mother and father. Margaret always arrived bearing something for me, an avid reader. One of the first books she brought for me was by Stephen Meader. It was a boy’s adventure story, called Jonathan Goes West. My favorite of all Meader’s books, though, was about a dog named Skippy that came into a family for something like 15 years and, as dogs do, broke their hearts.
Flash forward almost 40 years. Judy Wilson asked me to join Macmillan’s children’s department to head up Crestwood House, a recent acquisition. One of my colleagues there was, surprise, Margaret McElderry, who reminisced with me about 1948 and the intervening years. I got to know her all over again, but as an adult. The world is indeed a small one, but where Margaret was involved it was a large and adventurous one. I owe her a great deal.
Patricia Buckley, former rights director, Macmillan and HarperCollins
As I said to Patricia Kelly, a friend of Margaret’s and of mine, Margaret’s passing is an end of an era. No one will ever replace her; she was one of a kind. She was generous and kind. I have spent a part of several summers at her house in Little Compton, R.I. I remember the first time I drove up with her in her Mercedes. Margaret did not drive slowly. She moved along. In the garage at Little Compton was a red Buick convertible which I’m sure was her delight. Margaret and I went to a lot of theatre together after we were reacquainted, when Macmillan acquired Atheneum. She always was fun to be with. I will miss her always.
Anne McNeil, publishing director, Hodder Children’s Books
Margaret McElderry was someone I was lucky enough to encounter early in my career. It was a long time ago—the mid to late eighties, I think. I was a junior editorial assistant, and on the day Ms. McElderry flew in from New York for an appointment with my boss, I was the only person in the office. Everyone was out, or in my boss’s case, off sick. Instead of cancelling, Margaret requested to see me. And during our meeting, she asked me to recommend a book from the list—my favorite. I did. I told her about it, and she said she would publish in America. She did. She made me feel that I had a place in this strange world of children’s books that I had stumbled into. She made me feel I had a voice, too—and that feeling never went away. She was forever young; interested in those around her, and interesting, to boot.
The last time we had dinner, in Greenwich Village, she was walking with a cane. I asked her if she wanted accompanying home and she said, “No, why would I, dear?” She waved me off with a huge smile, standing at the corner. She was an inspiration. She was a friend.