"Just one more page, Mommie." ThatÂ's how most days ended when my daughter was growing up, with a plea for just a little more of Peter Pan, or CharlotteÂ's Web, or Tom Sawyer. Long after she was old enough to read to herself, we kept up the bedtime ritual. We cherished the cozy, cuddling moments of rooting for heroes to triumph over villains, the shared joy of having most things work out happily ever after. We worked our way up to "chapter" books, of course, starting with rhyming books like What Can You Do With a Shoe and picture books without any words, like ShrewbettinaÂ's Birthday.
I mention those two because I recently got some simultaneous bad news and good news about them: they had gone out of print, but were recently reissued. And the reason, I learned, was that Margaret McElderry, who first published them, had decided that they needed to be reissued.
When you meet McElderry, the first thing you notice is the twinkle in her eye. She shows you proudly around her elegant Washington Square apartment and casually informs you that the first time she ever set foot in the building, it was a speakeasy and it's just a darned funny coincidence that she lives there now. She seems to shrug off the amazing accomplishments of her 86 years, the fact that she is now considered the Grande Dame of the childrenÂ's book business, having published or edited some 2,000 books.
She was the first to have books she brought to market in one year win both the Caldecott Medal for best picture book and the Newberry Medal for best childrenÂ's literature. SheÂ's published old classics like Mary NortonÂ's The Borrowers and new ones like Susan CooperÂ's The Dark is Rising series. She now oversees her own publishing imprint, Margaret McElderry books at Simon and Schuster. She is adored by "her" authors. And, alas, she is considered the last of a legendary generation of womenÂ's book editors and publishers who helped create the post World War II boom in childrenÂ's books, a group that met regularly simply to talk about the business. And to the question, "But werenÂ't you competitive?", the answer is typically low key: "We were all eager to do good books that children would really love, and it would be a contribution. We didnÂ't think so grandiloquently."
Today McElderry acknowledges that the competition comes not so much from rival publishers, but from a zillion television channels, and super heroes and computers all vying for childrenÂ's time. And so, she says, childrenÂ's books are the most important part of the publishing industry because "If yodonÂ't catch them young...you wonÂ't have any adult readers." She is right of course. Those of us who were lucky enough to be caught young know just how lucky we are. So hereÂ's a toast from my daughter and me to all the Margaret McElderrys who made sure that there were books out there to entice us and delight us.
By Rita Braver
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