A Love Letter to Margaret K. McElderry

I haven’t updated this blog in a long, long time, but learning of the death of Margaret K. McElderry (1912-2011) yesterday made me want to write my own tiny little tribute to one of the Great Ladies of the children’s book world. The following, then, is my Valentine’s Day homage to the last link of the female junior novel network.
Margaret K. McElderry
 A Love Letter to Margaret K. McElderry; or, Reasons Why I Wish I Could Have Met Her:
1. She was a big part of the female junior novel network…
…and I am in love with that network. Briefly, it was a group of professional women who worked with each other to create, promote, and distribute female junior novels. The network may be split into two historical phases: first, those American women who founded children’s book publishing and extended children’s librarianship from the turn of the century to roughly 1940, including Anne Carroll Moore, Bertha Mahony, Louise Seaman, and May Massee; and second, those who continued and expanded the realm of children’s books and library services from 1940s through the late 1960s, notably Mabel Williams, Margaret Scoggin, Ursula Nordstrom, and Margaret K. McElderry. The division separating the two phases is fuzzy; it is partly generational, in that many—but not all—of the women who formed the first phase retired around the time that the second phase emerged. It is also partly ideological, in that the way in which the women viewed their professional roles underwent a shift between the two generations, from the perception that they were creating and promoting children’s books because they were female (and therefore had an inherent link with children), to their own recognition of their abilities as based on experiences and qualifications, rather than gender. Invisible because of its all-female composition, middlebrow status, and “feminine control,” yet self-governing for those same reasons, the network established a semi-autonomous space into which left-leaning authors—like Mary Stolz—could safely (if subtly) critique American social and foreign policies during the Cold War period.
2. She worked under Anne Carroll Moore for nine years at the NYPL—and survived 
When McElderry left the NYPL in 1945, it was to become head of the children’s book department at Harcourt, Brace.
3. She understood her business
At the American Booksellers Association convention in 1948, McElderry, then children’s book editor for Harcourt, addressed the Association by first citing current birth statistics, including the new arrival of 333 000 American babies each month, and then by declaring “that she had come not to wax eloquent about her high-minded convictions but rather ‘to talk about children’s books as profitable merchandise for the bookseller’” (Marcus, Minders 179). Leonard Marcus further points out that, to accompany the baby boom, children’s book editors now published “a record one thousand new titles from which to choose” (179). McElderry’s speech demonstrates the extent to which editors had ideologically changed from (somewhat altruistically) filling a need for children’s books to recognizing and promoting children’s books as profitable commodities.
4. She respected (and was respected by) her professional network colleagues
In an interview with Betsy Hearne, McElderry recalled the unspoken agreement between editors that specific authors belonged with certain editors, and that those authors were not to be poached:

We were very close then….We met once a month for lunch, 15 or 20 women. It was fun and you talked about all kinds of things. And if, for instance, an author of Ursula got disenchanted for a moment—as one did—and called me and said “I’d like to change and publish with you,” I said “well, that’s very nice and complimentary, but I think really you are a Harper/Ursula Nordstrom person.” Or if an artist called, you’d call the editor and say, “what about this?” We always did that… We used to call each other, send flowers of congratulation …. Then you were friends with everyone. (Hearne 758)

Ursula Nordstrom
Being friends with everyone often meant that editors would suggest that unsuccessful authors try selling their manuscripts to rival editors at competing publishing houses. Thus in 1952, for example, Ursula Nordstrom published Natalie Savage Carlson’s The Talking Cat and Other Stories of French Canada. Carlson’s book eventually won the ages eight to twelve category of the New York Herald-Tribune Spring Book Festival award. Carlson then wrote another book, Alphonse, which she submitted to Nordstrom for publication by Harper and Brothers. In a letter dated December 9, 1952, however, Nordstrom informed Carlson that “with a heavy heart I must write you that we still think Alphonse (revised version) is not a worthy successor to The Talking Cat” (Nordstrom 59). While Nordstrom’s refusal is nothing out of the ordinary, what is interesting is the fact that she then suggests that Carlson contact her professional rival, Margaret K. McElderry, at Harcourt, Brace:

Well, let me know who takes Alphonse, if you are willing, will you? By the way, I hear via the grapevine, that Harcourt turned down The Talking Cat and I think they would be extremely glad to have a chance at Alphonse. You know Miss McElderry, don’t you? She does lovely books. (Nordstrom 59-60)

Nordstrom, of course, may have had several reasons for suggesting that Carlson try McElderry, not the least of which may have been an attempt to maintain friendly relations, should Carlson try to publish with Harper’s again. What Nordstrom’s suggestion also shows, however, is the degree to which many editors in the female junior novel network knew each other’s book lists and types, and were willing to suggest their competitors as possible avenues for publication.
5. Her network colleagues stuck up for her
Although their primary source of correspondence was in relation to authors and illustrators, network editors seemed to enjoy keeping in touch with each other generally, even when their letters were not specifically connected to a book or an author. Members of the Association of Children’s Book Editors (who were primarily based, like the publishing houses, in New York City) met monthly to lunch, gathered every summer at American Library Association conventions, and joined each other every November for the gala banquet during Children’s Book Week (Marcus, Minders 191). Interestingly, Nordstrom and McElderry, the Macy’s and Gimbels of the children’s book world, were perhaps two of its closer editors. One example of their professional relationship followed in the wake of an unexpected controversy caused by McElderry’s publication of a book she had edited, called The Two Reds. The title of the book, coupled with the author’s name (Nicholas Mordvinoff), suggested possible Communist implications to many people, including the president of FAO Schwartz. Frances Chrystie—a very good friend of Ursula Nordstrom, and a network member herself—had displayed numerous copies of the book in the famous department store’s windows. She was quickly directed to remove all copies from the display. Betsy Hearne observes that during this controversy “McElderry’s network of women—including editors, critics, and librarians—supported her aesthetic commitment in vocal and powerful ways” (757). As McElderry recalled:

Louise Seaman Bechtel, who was reviewing for the New York Herald Tribune, wrote: “The publication of this book restores one’s faith in the experimental daring of American publishers.” That sentence is engraved on my heart. Ursula Nordstrom, children’s book editor at Harper, called me on vacation in Nantucket to tell me about the review. (757)

Seaman’s review demonstrates the professional ties and similar aesthetic choices of the women in the network, particularly in regard to “experimental daring.” Although Seaman was no longer a book editor by this time, her reviews still carried a lot of weight. Nordstrom was herself often considered to be one of the most daring children’s book publishers of her time, and her vacation call suggests the closeness that these professional ties may have engendered.
5. She handled professional catastrophes May-Massee-style (which is to say, awesomely)
Just as the Depression signaled a crash in children’s book production, so too the late 1960s/early 1970s experienced a similar crash (although not to the same proportions). Parallels between editors may also be observed in Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich’s 1971 dismissal of Margaret K. McElderry, which Leonard Marcus hails as “the greatest act of managerial folly since the firing in 1932 of May Massee by Doubleday” (Minders 246). McElderry had been offered no choice when she was fired, but the reason for her dismissal, as offered at the time of her termination, demonstrates the new sense of publishing that seemed to be spreading at that time. McElderry may have been the first editor to have texts on her list that won both the Newbery and the Caldecott awards in the same year, but, as the young men who dismissed her explained, “the wave of the future has passed you by” (qtd. in Hearne 771). Thankfully, just as Massee was quickly hired by Viking, so Atheneum hired McElderry. 
Thanks for everything, Margaret K. McElderry. You seemed like a pretty exceptional person, and I wish I could have known you.
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Hearne, Betsy. “Margaret K. McElderry and the Professional Matriarchy of Children’s Books.” Library Trends 44.4 (Spring 1996): 755-75. Print.
Marcus, Leonard S. Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.
Nordstrom, Ursula. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Ed. Leonard S. Marcus. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Print.

Totally Mahony, not Seaman.

I just came across a pretty major mis-attribution of a quotation in an article by a very well-known scholar of children’s book publishing and library services. If I didn’t happen to have the original source of the quotation sitting in front of me (the Horn Book, August, 1928), then I would never have noticed it.

I’m wondering, however, if the mis-attribution is, in itself, a sign regarding the early network of women who produced and distributed the female junior novels. The author states that Louise Seaman (of Macmillan, who was the first editor of children’s books in America) said something that Bertha Mahony (of the Bookshop for Boys and Girls, and the creator of the Horn Book) first wrote in the Horn Book in 1928. Mahony and Seaman (as well as Anne Carroll Moore, Alice Jordan, May Massee, and Elinor Whitney, among others) composed the first generation of this female network. The quotation itself refers to the publishing side of the network:

We do not mean to depreciate or minimize the splendid publishing of books which men have done but we do believe that men (with few exceptions) have been baffled and groping where children’s books are concerned and that they have not had the vision to shape their organization so that the right people have had the necessary time for these books. There seems every natural reason why women, properly qualified, should be particularly successful in the selection of children’s books to publish and their publishing.

Here’s the thing: Seaman would never have written this statement. She was all like, “hey, George Brett. My role as a children’s editor is based on my qualifications, experiences, and publishing abilities, not on any “natural” ability to work with children.” Mahony, conversely, was more like Moore and Jordan, and tended to still reside in the females-can-excel-in-work-with-children-because-they-possess-“natural”-abilities-to-do-so camp.

So here’s my spin: perhaps the fact that the author of this article confuses something written by Mahony for something written by Seaman demonstrates the degree to which these women worked across disciplines in an effort to create and promote children’s literature. Perhaps, to some degree, the network itself obfuscates the individual women who participated in it.

Or, you know, maybe the author just made a mistake.

[for a crazily-well researched look into the early members of this network, see Jacalyn Eddy’s Bookwomen: Creating an Empire in Children’s Book Publishing 1919-1939.]