Legendary Children's Book Editor Offers Tips on Publishing

Literary agent Tracey Adams '93 (far right); legendary children's book editor Margaret Knox McElderry '33 (at Adams's right); and Corinne Demas, MHC professor of English, and members of Demas's seminar on writing for children.

Despite American publishing's increasing resemblance to every other realm of corporate America, "editors still care passionately about books," says Margaret Knox McElderry '33. The slender, spunky, and elegantly attired children's book editor addressed a group of students and visitors in MHC's Writing Literature for Children Seminar last week. At eighty-nine, she has watched the book business grow from a family-oriented trade into an outsized industry. But even in the face of corporate "swallowing up" of book companies, she still celebrates the publishing world's "greater freedoms."

McElderry, editor-at-large at Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster), who received an honorary degree from MHC in 1978, was joined by her former assistant, Tracey Adams '93, now a literary agent with McIntosh & Otis Inc. Other distinguished guests, some of whom had worked with McElderry, included children's book illustrators Jane Dyer and Diane deGroat, and writer Marguerite W. Davol. MHC president Joanne Creighton also dropped in to meet the noted Mount Holyoke alumna. Corinne Demas, professor of English and the author of award-winning books for children, teaches the seminar, and is represented by Adams.

McElderry and Adams offered tips to Demas's aspiring writers and illustrators on how to submit a manuscript to a publisher and provided insights into the competition for children's book writers. Adams also discussed the value of publishing internships. Both had encouraging news for writers who have never published. "I look for unknown writers. You need new blood," said McElderry. "That's where it all begins." To students who someday hope to have their stories in print, McElderry underscored the importance of familiarity with children's literature and urged students to "read, read, read!" When asked to define what qualities make a great writer, McElderry said it was a matter of "instinct." That distinctive ability to connect to the world of children, she said, was hard to define though readily recognized by editors reading manuscript submissions. And what makes a classic? "A combination of luck and quality,” said McElderry. “But it has to be a book that is loved when it gets to its ultimate reader."

McElderry told the group that when she graduated from Mount Holyoke sixty-eight years ago, her passion was books and reading. But told she had "nothing to offer publishing," she returned to college for a second degree in library science, becoming a children's librarian at the New York Public Library. During World War II she joined the Office of War Information overseas branch in London, where she stayed until 1945. She was then transferred to Brussels with the United States Information Service as chief of special projects. But after the war she was determined to work in publishing and, in 1945, became editor of children's books at Harcourt, Brace and Company. She moved to Atheneum in 1971. It eventually became a part of Macmillan, and, subsequently, Simon & Schuster.

"My life has always been a series of accidents; I've never made anything happen," said the remarkably modest editor. McElderry is, in fact, the first to have launched her own line of children's books, the imprint known as Margaret K. McElderry Books, today a part of Simon & Schuster. The year 1952 set another benchmark: McElderry's books were the first to win the two highest honors for children's book narratives and illustrations both in the same year—the Newbery and Caldecott awards respectively. But even at the start of her successful career, she revealed bold visionary instincts, publishing German and Japanese postwar novels for children and also introducing Americans to writers from England, Australia, and South Africa. Today McElderry spends four days a week at her office in Manhattan, and she remains an influential force in the $1-billion-plus children's book industry.

Tracey Adams, who was an English major at MHC and worked with McElderry, traces her initiation into the publishing world to an internship arranged through Mount Holyoke in 1990. Her experience at Farrar, Straus & Giroux led to a subsequent internship at William Morrow & Co. and Greenwillow Books. She later went on to work for Margaret K. McElderry Books. Now, as a literary agent specializing in books for children, she reads manuscripts, submits them to editors, works with both writers and illustrators, and negotiates contracts. And keeping up with the industry necessitates attending book conferences as well, both in the United States and abroad.

Both Adams and McElderry urged students to make the most of their MHC years. McElderry noted the breadth of experience available to students at the College, and recalled the "peace and repose" of her days on campus. "You're lucky," she said. "This college will provide you with a wonderful background for life." She added, "nothing that happens in your life or education is ever really useless."


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