Margaret K. McElderry (1912-2011)

Legendary children’s book editor Margaret K. McElderry passed away on Feb. 14 at the age of 98 at her home in Manhattan. She was the first editor to have a children’s book imprint named after her – Margaret K. McElderry Books – and her influence on children’s literature was extensive both in the United States and in other countries, including Canada. While dedicated to publishing stories by American writers and illustrators, she was also committed to bringing books from other countries to American readers. Among her many books, she published James Houston’s first Inuit stories (Tikta’liktak and The White Archer) in the 1960s and was instrumental in launching the career of Ian Wallace in the early 1980s.

McElderry began her career as a librarian in the New York Public Library and made her move to children’s publishing in 1945, becoming the children’s book editor at Harcourt, Brace and Company. In the 1970s, she moved to Atheneum where she was given her own imprint. McElderry was the editor of a number of Newbery and Caldecott winners. In fact, in 1952 she became the first publisher to have books she published win both the Newbery and Caldecott in the same year. She continued to edit children’s books well into her 90s.

Ian Wallace remembers Margaret McElderry as someone with “charm and grace, generous heart and good humour, sharp intellect and artistic acumen.” His first full-colour picture book was co-edited and co-published by Patsy Aldana of Groundwood Books in Canada and Margaret McElderry K. Books in the US.

He recalls, “I met Margaret in 1981 through an introduction by Lovat Dickson (writer of biographies of Grey Owl and H. G. Wells, among others, and former President of Macmillan UK) who was a dear close friend of Margaret’s. The introduction came at a time in Canadian publishing before the renaissance in kid’s lit in the 1980s. I was having difficulty getting published in Canada and made the decision to attempt to gain interest from an American publisher for a story I’d written, Chin Chiang and the Dragon’s Dance. My dream was to create a full-colour, hard-cover, internationally published picture book. Margaret opened that door of possibility for me and, as important, she introduced me to Patsy who had only recently established Groundwood Books. The three of us, working together for three years, created Chin Chiang and the Dragon’s Dance. Working on that book was one of the greatest learning experiences of my artistic life and I will be forever grateful to both Margaret and Patsy for giving me the opportunity.”

Patsy Aldana notes that McElderry also published Groundwood authors Ann Blades, Sarah Ellis and Welwyn Katz. “She bought A Salmon for Simon from me at my very first Bologna Book Fair. She was my mentor and a model for me.”

Publisher Gail Winskill first met Margaret McElderry at a sales conference more than 30 years ago. “She was definitely my hero… Her style and expertise in publishing children’s books was brilliant. What a fabulous legacy of wonderful books she has left behind.”

For an interview with Margaret McElderry in The Horn Book, visit https://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/1990_96/nov93_marcus.asp