Legendary Children's Book Editor Offers Tips on Publishing
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 yearthe 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."