Margaret K. McElderry Books celebrates 50 years of “capturing young readers”

In 1944, when transatlantic travel meant a constant threat of torpedoes from German U-boats, librarian Margaret McElderry boarded a freighter bound for London to take a job at the Office of War Intelligence. To soothe the restless nerves of other passengers as their ship sailed through perilous waters, she told stories aloud; children’s stories, said her friend, author Susan Cooper, because she thought they were the best kind of stories. At the end of the war and on her return to the United States, she started the first children’s book department at Harcourt Brace & World, becoming one of the few editors who helped push children’s literature forward. from its minor status to the thriving industry it is today. Those who knew her say her signature fearlessness and advocacy of children’s literature has had an impact still undeniable as the imprint she founded turns 50. McElderry died in 2011 at the age of 98.

In its first half-century, Margaret K. McElderry Books, now a publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, sold over 80 million books. In addition to publishing Cooper’s much-heralded The Dark Is Rising series, the publisher launched the careers of award-winning and successful 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, imprint’s vice president and editorial director, said it was still a “bold” publisher. “There is truth in everything we do,” she added.

McElderry has fearlessly charted the direction of his imprint based on decades of work to engage young readers. “If you don’t catch them young,” she once said, “you won’t have adult readers.” At Harcourt she edited the Newbery and Caldecott winners – in 1952, both awards in the same year. She published Mary Norton’s Borrowers series and became one of the first American publishers to research books overseas.

“His insight as an editor came from intelligence, experience, and instinct,” Cooper said, in part from his experience working at the New York Public Library under the supervision of the “terribly demanding” Anne Carroll Moore. McElderry’s training as a librarian was fundamental. She never hesitated to take risks on controversial books, especially in 1950, by acquiring and publishing The two reds by William Lipkind, which was boycotted by retailers who feared the book would evoke communism at the height of the Red Scare. In addition to championing groundbreaking books, she paved the way for women at a time when the publishing industry was almost exclusively male-dominated.

When McElderry was fired in 1972 by William Jovanovich, who told her “the wave of the future has passed you,” she put her own stamp on Atheneum. Cooper was one of the writers who followed McElderry from Harcourt to his new home. “I went with her everywhere she went,” Cooper said. “I trusted his judgment completely.” The night is comingthe second in Cooper’s iconic five-book series, was published by McElderry Books in 1974.

“Her greatest gift was nurturing the talents she discovered: staying in close contact with her authors and illustrators, following their ideas, encouraging work in progress and ensuring that there will be more. others,” Cooper said. “It’s the mark of a great publisher, as important as any manipulation of a manuscript.”

Due to her long career in children’s publishing, McElderry was often referred to as the “grande dame” of the industry. 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 titles. “We’re always looking for great writing,” Wojtyla said, adding that the imprint has “a gold standard to live up to.

McElderry Books currently publishes approximately 30-35 books per year. Although the roots of the imprint are in mid-level and picture books, about half of the list is now YA and also includes poetry and non-fiction. Being part of such a strong heritage is a solid foundation to build on, but the footprint remains focused on the future. There’s “a lot more YA” than McElderry would have imagined, Wojtyla said, and a much wider variety of stories than in the past.

Chloe Gong’s hit duology, which debuted in 2020 with These violent delights— continues the fantastic tradition of the imprint. A Romeo and Juliet set in 1926 Shanghai, the story was an instant commercial and critical success. Gong grew up reading McElderry author Cassandra Clare; his books “made me fall in love with fictional worlds”, Gong said. “By opening a book and being elsewhere, the world has ceased to exist. I was in another world fighting demons. It shaped what I wanted to achieve with my own writing. To be part of the McElderry tradition is “a great honor,” she said. The imprint’s team of “unsung heroes” continues McElderry’s legacy of nurturing talent and is wholeheartedly committed to his career, Gong said. Mistake Lady Fortuneset in the same world of violent delightsis scheduled for September, the first volume of another duology.

Taking up the torch in mid-level fantasy, Onyeka and the Sun Academy by Tolá Okogwu comes out in June. Described as Black Panther meets x-menthe story follows a British Nigerian girl who learns that as a member of the Solari, a secret group, her hair has psychokinetic powers, which she will learn to use at Sun Academy, where she and her classmates must fight for the truth.

McElderry’s courage lives on in the imprint she founded, Wojtyla said. “We are in a regressive period,” she said. “As books are increasingly challenged, it behooves us to fight for children and their right to read anything and everything.” Providing “windows and mirrors” that empower children is central to its mission. McElderry wouldn’t have shy away from publishing powerful and thought-provoking books and neither would her successors, Wojtyla added, saying she certainly would have been an advocate for inclusion and diversity. “We always remember Margaret’s influence.”

As the pioneer and standard-bearer of children’s books, her legacy shows no signs of waning. “Authors and artists today can cover topics that were banned even 20 years ago,” Cooper said. “But their story still has to be a good story. It is thanks to MKM and its successors that the world has something classifiable as “children’s literature”. ”

Lucas E. Kelly