In 1944, when transatlantic travel meant constant threat of torpedoes from German U-boats, librarian Margaret McElderry boarded a freighter in New York to take a job at the Office of War Intelligence in London. To soothe the jangled nerves of fellow passengers as their ship navigated perilous waters, she told stories aloud; children’s stories, her friend, author Susan Cooper said, because she believed they were the very best kind of stories. Upon the war’s end and her return to the U.S., she initiated the first children’s book department at Harcourt Brace & World, becoming one of a handful of editors instrumental in elevating children’s literature from its minor status to the thriving industry it is today. Those who knew her say her characteristic fearlessness and advocacy for children’s literature made an impact that’s still undeniable as the imprint she founded celebrates 50 years. McElderry died in 2011 at age 98.
In its first half century, Margaret K. McElderry Books—now a boutique imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing—has sold more than 80 million books. In addition to publishing Cooper’s much-heralded The Dark Is Rising series, the imprint has launched the careers of award-winning and bestselling authors and illustrators including William Alexander, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Hilary McKay, Margaret Mahy, Shelia P. Moses, Helen Oxenbury, and Chloe Gong among many others. Karen Wojtyla, the imprint’s v-p and editorial director, said it’s still very much a “bold” publisher. “There’s truth telling in everything we do,” she added.
McElderry dauntlessly plotted her imprint’s direction based on decades working to engage young readers. “If you don’t catch them young,” she once said, “you won’t have any adult readers.” At Harcourt, she edited Newbery and Caldecott winners—in 1952, both awards in the same year. She published the Borrowers series by Mary Norton and became one of the first American editors to scout for books overseas.
“Her insight as a publisher came from intelligence, experience, and instinct,” Cooper said, developed in part from her experience working at the New York Public Library under the supervision of the “fearsomely demanding” Anne Carroll Moore. McElderry’s training as a librarian was foundational. She never hesitated to take risks on controversial books, including in 1950, acquiring and editing The Two Reds by William Lipkind, which was boycotted by retailers who feared from the title that the book was about communism at the height of the Red Scare. In addition to championing groundbreaking books, she blazed a trail for women at a time when the publishing industry was nearly exclusively dominated by men.
When McElderry was fired in 1972 by William Jovanovich, who famously told her that “the wave of the future has passed you by,” she started her own imprint at Atheneum; she was the first editor in children’s publishing to have an eponymous imprint. Cooper was one of the authors who followed McElderry from Harcourt to her new home. “I was going with her wherever she went,” Cooper said. “I trusted her judgment absolutely.” The Dark Is Rising, the second in Cooper’s five-book series, was published by McElderry Books in 1974 and won a Newbery Honor.
“Her greatest gift was for nurturing the talents she discovered: keeping in close touch with her authors and illustrators, tracking their ideas, encouraging the work in progress, and ensuring that there will be more,” Cooper said. “That’s the mark of a great editor, as important as any handling of a manuscript.”
Because of her lengthy tenure in children’s publishing, McElderry was often referred to as the industry’s “grand dame.” Twenty-five of the books she personally edited are still in print.
Continuing McElderry’s legacy, the imprint now focuses on high quality literary fantasy, contemporary and historical fiction, and a range of other author and character-driven titles. “We always look for great writing,” Wojtyla said, adding that the imprint has “a gold standard to live up to. We don’t publish anything that we think wouldn’t get a starred review.”
McElderry Books currently publishes about 30 to 35 books per year. Although the imprint’s roots are in middle grade and picture books, about half of the list is now YA and also includes poetry and nonfiction. McElderry's legacy is a solid foundation to build upon, but the imprint remains focused on the future. There’s “a lot more YA” than McElderry would have imagined, Wojtyla said, and a much broader variety of stories than in the past.
Chloe Gong’s bestselling These Violent Delights duology—which debuted in 2020—carries on the imprint’s fantasy tradition. A Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1926 Shanghai, the story was an instant commercial and critical success. Gong grew up reading McElderry author Cassandra Clare; her books “made me fall in love with fictional worlds,” Gong said. “Opening a book and being somewhere else, the world ceased to exist. I was in another world fighting demons. It shaped what I wanted to achieve with my own writing.” Being part of the McElderry tradition is “a great honor,” she said. The team of “unsung heroes” at the imprint carries on McElderry’s legacy of nurturing talent and is wholeheartedly committed to her career, Gong said. Foul Lady Fortune, set in the same world of Violent Delights, is slated for September release, the first volume of another duology.
Taking up the mantle in middle-grade fantasy, Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tolá Okogwu releases in June. Described as Black Panther meets X-Men, the story follows a British Nigerian girl who learns that because she's a member of a secret group called the Solari, her hair has psychokinetic powers, which she’ll learn to use at the Academy of the Sun, where she and her classmates must battle for the truth.
McElderry’s courage lives on in the imprint she founded, Wojtyla said. “We’re in a regressive time,” she said. “With books increasingly being challenged, it’s incumbent upon us to fight for kids and their right to read anything and everything.” Providing “windows and mirrors” that empower children is central to its mission. McElderry wouldn’t have shied away from publishing powerful, challenging books and her successors don’t either, Wojtyla added, saying that she would certainly have been an advocate for inclusion and diversity. “We are always reminded of Margaret’s influence.”
McElderry's legacy as a trailblazer and standard bearer for children’s books shows no sign of waning. “Authors and artists can cover subjects today that were verboten even 20 years ago,” Cooper said. “But their story still has to be a good story. It’s thanks to MKM and her successors that the world has something classifiable as ‘children’s literature.’ ”