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Elisabeth Hamilton & Margaret McElderry: Two Approaches, One Passion

In 1919, when Louise Seaman Bechtel became the nation’s first children’s book editor, at Macmillan, her customers-in-waiting were chiefly children’s librarians. One specialty had bred another; now, one editor would follow another.

Many of those new children’s book editors came from the ranks of children’s librarians. The story of two of them, the first two children’s book editors at Harcourt, Elisabeth Bevier Hamilton (1893–1966) and Margaret McElderry (1912–2011), is also a story of the fifty years when libraries were the dominant market for children’s books, and publishing them seemed, to all concerned, a grand endeavor. But Hamilton and McElderry themselves came to the work from different professional backgrounds and with different aspirations.

Elisabeth Hamilton

Elisabeth Hamilton, circa 1945.

Like most of the early editors, Elisabeth Hamilton had gone to a Seven Sisters college, Vassar; but 
alone among them, she had worked as a school library administrator. The firm she joined in 1926, Harcourt, Brace, was a young, politically progressive house with an American emphasis, the publisher of Carl Sandburg, Lincoln Steffens, and W.E.B. Du Bois. When Hamilton became head of the new children’s book department in 1927, after a year doing library 
promotion, she was on fertile, 
congenial ground.

Over time, Sandburg’s multivolume Lincoln biography yielded, for the children’s list, Abe Lincoln Grows Up (1928); Steffens’s autobiography was the source of Boy on Horseback (1935); cultural historian Constance Rourke’s groundbreaking American Humor (1931) inspired Davy Crockett (1934), a Newbery runner-up. (The designation “honor book” was an innovation of the 1970s.)

martin_firstpicturebook_256x300Hamilton also made waves, in the early years, with unorthodox picture books. The First Picture Book (1930), conceived by Mary Steichen Martin (Calderone), consists solely of vivid black-and-white photos, by her famous photographer father Edward Steichen, of everyday objects in a baby’s life. Dorothy Kunhardt’s Junket Is Nice (1933) is the antithesis: wholehearted nonsense. The two books live on in different ways today — the Steichen as the first modern photographic book for children, Junket Is Nice as an offbeat, restored-to-print classic.

Hamilton moved in other, more pragmatic directions with equal verve. In 1930 came The Earth for Sam, a tutorial in earth science[1] first written by retired Harvard professor W. Maxwell Reed as letters to his young nephew — the beginning of what became arguably the strongest science list in children’s publishing, long before the post-
Sputnik infusion of federal funds. And long before the 1950s school desegregation decision and civil rights revolution, Hamilton took an interest in African American subjects[2] far beyond any of her peers.

Her leading suit, though, was everyday fiction — fiction in series, fiction by repeat writers, fiction for all kinds of readers, for all the kids in the class.

Eleanor Lattimore,[3] who’d grown up in China and wanted to be an illustrator, came to Hamilton with drawings of Chinese children. Her drawings looked realistic, Hamilton said. “I’d like to have a good story about Chinese children — not the fanciful fairy tales that are floating around now, but an ordinary story of how an ordinary child lives in China. Why don’t you write one and illustrate it with your own drawings?”

Thus was born Little Pear (1931), age five, who lives “with his father, his mother, and his two sisters in a small house at the edge of a village in China.” Lattimore turned out to be a natural-born storyteller: the first page echoes the beginning of Peter Rabbit. The chapter headings beguile — “How Little Pear Lit a Firecracker” — and pictures large and small and individual keep pace with the doings.

Over the next forty years, Lattimore wrote a book or two just about every year, typically about a child in a distinctive situation — in American life, too.

haywood_bforbetsy_208x300Carolyn Haywood also approached Hamilton with drawings of children, and was also persuaded to write her own story. The outcome: B Is for Betsy (1939), which takes readers through the first grade with Betsy and best friend Ellen and their classmates, teacher Miss Grey, policeman Mr. Kilpatrick…past Thanksgiving and Christmas, a surprise birthday and tadpoles in class, mishaps and misdeeds. All in “large clear types suited to young readers,” as one reviewer noted, with “a picture wherever anything happens.”

More Betsy books appeared at intervals, joined by stories about two adopted boys, Penny and Peter, and the occasional singleton. Then came Little Eddie (1947), a seven-year-old in the neighborhood sparkplug vein. His collection of stray animals is legion: “anything that was alive, Eddie brought home with him.”

Eddie was irrepressible — and irresistible: veteran reviewers swooned over Eddie and the Fire Engine (1949). Haywood, like Lattimore, went on writing for forty years, and throughout those years her books filled a library shelf — and a niche — of their own.

Eleanor Estes didn’t draw, but she knew just the person to illustrate her first book: her sculptor friend Louis Slobodkin. When Hamilton saw his drawings, she agreed. It was the loose and quirky doubled: a match of sensibilities and styles.

Estes_themiddlemoffat_204x300In The Moffats (1941), the four children and their widowed mother, about to lose their rented house, navigate the vagaries of small-town Connecticut life during World War I with humor and imagination. The Middle Moffat (1942) is ten-year-old Janey’s tale, propelled by her own idiosyncratic way of thinking, while Rufus M. (1943) conveys intrepid Rufus through first grade. The following year brought The Hundred Dresses, Estes’s indelible story of Polish immigrant Wanda Petronski’s imaginary wardrobe, with an assortment of wash illustrations by Slobodkin animating the broad pages and inflecting the heartfelt story.

As a run of high-performing fiction, there may be no match for those four books in four years. The latter three were all Newbery runners-up, and The Hundred Dresses holds its own as a social beacon. The next year, Hamilton left Harcourt for Morrow — she’d been refused a vice-presidency — and almost all her authors went with her. Estes, who stayed at Harcourt, eventually won the Newbery for a lesser book about a cat, Ginger Pye (1951). Such are the vagaries of prize-giving and prize-winning.

Earlier Hamilton, who ordinarily didn’t publish fantasy or picture books, had taken on James Thurber’s first children’s book, Many Moons (1943); Slobodkin illustrated it grandly; and, ineluctably, it won the Caldecott.

At Morrow, Hamilton went on without skipping a beat. She had planned ahead.

Tunis_thekidfromtomkinsville_199x300John R. Tunis, for one, promptly published The Kid Comes Back (1946), a continuation of The Kid from Tomkinsville (1940) the start of his Brooklyn Dodgers series.

Tunis had been a veteran sports writer and sports critic when he wrote a novel about an outstanding athlete and student from a small Midwestern high school who flounders in the lofty world of Harvard. Harcourt would be happy to publish it, he was told, as a juvenile.

“I was socked, rocked, deflated,” he writes in his autobiography. “What on earth was a juvenile?”

That first book, The Iron Duke (1938), won the brand-new New York Herald Tribune spring book prize; Tunis bonded with Elisabeth Hamilton, who had told him it might; and for the next twenty years he wrote one after another yeasty sports story, regularly addressing themes of racial discrimination and social snobbery, regularly drawing attention from beyond the children’s book world. Tunis credited Hamilton: “She realized the things I was trying to say and the urgency of saying them.”

Beverly Cleary’s story, as she tells it, is also a story of Hamilton. Cleary was a children’s librarian and storyteller, with a hankering to write for kids, when Elisabeth Hamilton — “the smartest editor in the business,” she’d heard — came to speak at a library meeting nearby, in San Francisco.

Cleary_henryhuggins_210x300In short order, “Henry Huggins was in the third grade” came out of the typewriter, designed for the nonreading boys Cleary wanted to reach, and headed for immortality, along with Otis and Ribsy, Ellen Tebbits and Ramona the pest. Hamilton made some wise suggestions: Ribsy instead of Spareribs; Beverly Cleary instead of Beverly Bunn, her maiden name. Plus: “her most valuable suggestions” — five highly dramatic spots that needed expanding. And Louis Darling made a raft of snappy drawings.

Hamilton retired in 1956, leaving behind a list strong enough to be maintained and expanded for decades by her protégé and successor, Connie Epstein.

If anyone was capable of filling the docket at Harcourt, Brace left almost empty by Elisabeth Hamilton’s 1944 departure, it might have been the person with no editorial experience, Margaret McElderry. She had other qualifications.

Margaret McElderry

Margaret McElderry, circa 1948.

In 1945, McElderry had just completed two years’ service with the Office of War Information in England and Belgium, on leave from the New York Public Library. In her nine years at the library, she’d risen from sharpening Anne Carroll Moore’s pencils to serving as assistant head of children’s services, at Moore’s side. En route, she’d met authors, editors, librarians: everyone who was anyone. Her basic training was at the respected Carnegie Library School, where she’d gone after a guidance counselor at college brushed aside her interest in publishing with a brusque, “My dear, you have absolutely nothing to offer.”

It’s a story that McElderry loved 
to tell.

Knowing authors was no help to McElderry, however, with a new Harcourt list to build. In those days, editors didn’t poach authors from one another. But knowing folklore, as a seasoned NYPL storyteller, was a start.

The war’s end had brought the United Nations and international organizations, conferences, and festivals galore. Folklore publishing exploded — from the center of Europe…to Central America and the Caribbean…to the far corners of South and Southeast Asia. And at long last to Africa, richer than Europe in indigenous lore.

Collections culled from previous collections abounded. Here and there, a new volume of tales from, say, Italy or Mexico appeared. But McElderry cultivated new storytellers with depth and range, repeat performers, and the work of three of them — Harold Courlander (Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean), Yoshiko Uchida (Japan), and James Houston (Northwest Indians, the Inuit) — set a multicultural pace.

At the same time, traditional nursery tales and fairy tales escaped from collections into single picture books: with abbreviated texts and large-scale pictures, they suited the postwar upsurge of preschool programs and the televisual world of baby boom tots. In co-productions with European publishers (a McElderry specialty), full-color artwork could be expertly printed at a cost that would be prohibitive for an American publisher acting alone.

The two Swiss luminaries on the Harcourt list, Hans Fischer and Felix Hoffmann, led the way and, between them, split the spoils — Fischer with wit and gaiety and bounce (The Traveling Musicians, Puss in Boots), Hoffmann a model of gravity and emotional resonance (The Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel).

At home, McElderry’s growing reputation as a trailblazer in the graphic arts brought projects to her and gave credibility to her proposals.

The Two Reds (1950), by William Lipkind (words) and Nicolas Mordvinoff (pictures), is an inner-city story of a boy and a cat with dynamic modernist illustrations, unusual on both scores at that date. Louise Seaman Bechtel, still a mighty presence, extolled the book in the New York Herald Tribune, and it became a Caldecott runner-up. The following year the medal went to Finders Keepers, by the duo — an unfortunate book, colored mustard and tomato, and more designed than illustrated. In my experience and others’, librarians and layfolk, children were largely indifferent to both books beyond the dramatic opening pages of The Two Reds. They didn’t connect.

frasconi_seeandsay_229x300The woodcut artist Antonio Frasconi, urged by McElderry to try a children’s book, fared a good deal better. See and Say: A Picture Book in Four Languages (1955) consists of images so rich and animated and interesting in themselves (peas spilling out of a pod, a long-eared dog looking hopeful) that youngsters lingered over them with only a word in four languages to think about. But think one does, adult or child.

In this lineup of advanced style and high skill, how to account for Joan Walsh Anglund? A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You (1958), with its face-deprived figurines and its treacle whimsy, its obvious indebtedness to the Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak landmark A Hole Is to Dig (1952), made the rounds of publishers before it reached McElderry’s desk and she took it on. Whatever was she thinking?

For one thing, McElderry was susceptible to work in the Krauss-Sendak vein, and unlike many in the creative vanguard, she was content to ride a wave sometimes. She may also have sensed that the book would do well. And it did. Despite increasingly disparaging reviews, A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You and its successors sold some fifty million copies worldwide, in multiple languages.[4]

The year that Finders Keepers won the Caldecott, 1952, was also the year that Eleanor Estes’s Ginger Pye won the Newbery, making Harcourt the first double winner, a tremendous feather in McElderry’s cap. In 1956 the Caldecott went to the old ballad Frog Went A-Courtin’ (adapted by John Langstaff) for Feodor Rojankovsky’s bright, brisk illustrations — a departure, as a folklorish picture book, for the veteran Golden Books illustrator. And in 1957 Virginia Sorensen’s Miracles on Maple Hill, a quiet story about a disturbed World War II veteran’s readjustment, was the Newbery winner.

After Miracles on Maple Hill, McElderry published almost nothing dealing with contemporary American life. That was not so odd or unusual as it may sound. Children’s literary fare — as distinct from mass-market offerings — still consisted largely of fantasy, historical fiction (set anywhere from Pharaonic Egypt to Model-T Milwaukee), and stories of life in foreign lands. Stories of the kids on the block, such as Hamilton published, didn’t figure as “literature.”

benaryisbert_ark_196x300But in the postwar period there was another reason to overlook the American scene: a resurgent Europe was publishing books for children as never before — many of them immediate in content and penetrating in treatment. One ready subject was refugees, child refugees. Viz: The Ark (1953), by the German Margot Benary-Isbert, and North to Freedom (1965), by the Danish Anne Holm — two books, both published by McElderry, that struck chords then and reverberate still.

The Ark was urged upon McElderry by the esteemed translators of German literary works, Richard and Clara Winston. But were Americans ready to read sympathetically about a displaced family, trying to build a new life in western Germany, whose father had served in the German forces? Even a particularly engaging, resourceful family, setting up house in an abandoned railroad car? The Ark and its sequel, Rowan Farm (1954), enjoyed both sterling reviews and an avid readership, and Benary-Isbert became the rare foreign author (albeit, in time, a U.S. citizen) with a steady following.

Holm_northtofreedom_203x300McElderry may have picked up North to Freedom on a scouting trip to the Scandinavian countries where, she thought, young adult books were more sophisticated. Discerningly, she engaged L. W. Kingsland, the well-regarded British translator of Hans Christian Andersen, to take on the Holm work, and — in a rare misstep — changed the title of the American edition from the original I Am David. Its original title reclaimed in subsequent printings, the book endures: the story of a boy who, grown to age twelve as a captive, finds an identity and ultimately a home in traversing troubled postwar Europe.

For McElderry, there was always Britain. She’d grown up on King Arthur and the Bastables; she’d vacationed there and served there. Although other American publishers claimed a share of the postwar spoils, McElderry held her own in the two areas that mattered most to her, literary fantasy and mature teen fiction. She acquired Mary Norton’s below-stairs triumph, The Borrowers (1953), and domesticated the American edition with new, looser and jauntier illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush.

boston_childrenofgreenknowe_204x300The Children of Green Knowe (1955), the first of several delicate and stirring fantasies by the sexagenarian L. M. (Lucy) Boston, required something more. McElderry befriended Boston, encouraged her to continue writing, and shrewdly built her reputation in the vital American market. Boston’s ancient dwelling-place, the original Green Knowe, became a second home to McElderry, and in 1967 she celebrated her marriage to retired publisher Storer Lunt in the garden there. Mayhap with earnest young Tolly and the long-ago children of the house hovering in the shadows.

Germany, France, and elsewhere on the Continent. Norway, Denmark, Sweden. England and Scotland. And in a major way, Australia and New Zealand. Such was the bountiful new world of children’s books that McElderry bestrode.

She could be sensitive on that score, though. Publishing American authors, she told Leonard Marcus in a 1993 interview, mattered most to her. And in that postwar period she did preside over a variety of distinctive writers who found their audience — William O. Steele, E. C. Spykman, and Edward Eager prominent among them.

But the country was changing and publishing was changing, almost in opposite directions: as American society was splintering, American business was expanding, amalgamating. The privately owned, staunchly literary firm McElderry had joined in 1945 had become a textbook-and-trade-book powerhouse — renamed Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1970 in honor of the architect of that transformation, William Jovanovich.

Meanwhile the turbulent era of the civil rights movement, the counterculture, and the Vietnam War had brought such cutting-edge children’s books as Stevie and Zeely and The Contender, Harriet the Spy and The Chocolate War. In the spring of 1971 Jovanovich summoned Margaret McElderry to his office, told her to dismiss most of her staff, and fired her. Why?? “The wave of the future has passed you by.”

It was balm to McElderry to tell this story, too, knowing her listener would feel her hurt and share her outrage.

After a “ghastly summer” — as she wrote to Eleanor Estes — McElderry set up shop at the young literary house Atheneum, which already had a successful children’s book department, as head of her own, parallel imprint, Margaret K. McElderry Books. It was, fittingly, a first in children’s publishing.

Just as most of Elisabeth Hamilton’s authors had followed her from Harcourt to Morrow, most of McElderry’s authors followed her to the new imprint and spent the rest of their writing lives there. Two standouts by the New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy, The Haunting (1983) and The Changeover (1984), added distinction to the list, and the American fantasist Nancy Bond made a congenial addition. All was not long ago or far away, either: in Yoshiko Uchida’s Jar of Dreams (1981) and its sequels, the trials of a Japanese American family in World War II are given clear, rich, undoctrinaire expression.

But it was Susan Cooper, as author and friend, who gave special luster to McElderry’s later years.

Cooper was a versatile English journalist, who’d contributed to a column for children, when she entered a competition, sponsored by E. Nesbit’s publisher, for the best “family adventure story.” As she wrote, fancy took over…and the result became the gripping Arthurian quest Over Sea, Under Stone (1966), a born McElderry book.

In time the two met, over a Greenwich Village luncheon, and became fast friends. Cooper had married an American scientist, moved to Massachusetts, and continued writing — for adults.[5] Still, the quest for a magical ancient manuscript begun in Over Sea beckoned: maybe it was McElderry’s gentle nudging, maybe it was Cooper’s own immersion in British prehistory. Or perhaps it was Merry — old man Merriman — and his talk about the perpetual “struggle of good against evil.”

cooper_greyking_182x300The Dark Is Rising, the second of the five-book sequence, appeared in 1973 and became a Newbery Honor Book. The Grey King, two years later, won the award. More remarkably, American kids read the Dark Is Rising sequence with an eagerness not matched for epic British fantasy until Harry Potter.

Cooper herself turned out to be almost as versatile a writer of children’s books as she had been a journalist. Two of the best are also the most characteristically hers: The Boggart (1993), about a mischievous sprite relocated from his ancient Scottish castle to present-day Toronto, and, on another level, King of Shadows (1999), the story of a Shakespearean troupe of American boys putting on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe Theatre in London, where orphaned young Nat Field, playing Puck, finds himself standing in for an earlier Nat Field — and playing Puck opposite the Oberon of Will Shakespeare himself.

McElderry stepped down in 1998, to continue editing some authors from home. By that time Atheneum had merged into Scribner, which had then merged into Macmillan, which had then merged into Simon & Schuster. Publishing was different year by year. Morrow, where Connie Epstein upheld the Hamilton brand until her retirement in 1982, ceased to exist as a children’s book imprint in 1999.

Both Hamilton and McElderry, each in her own way, had made a permanent mark — and demonstrated that the most and the best were not mutually exclusive ideals. With everyday books for everyone, Hamilton helped rout the Bobbsey Twins and other clichéd, class-ridden series; with imaginative literature that Anne Carroll Moore would have applauded, McElderry helped keep the eternal flame burning, on American soil.

Together they had an influence across the board. Public libraries became less a preserve for avid readers, and more a hangout. And in school libraries, kids could find unusual stuff they’d never heard of. For all concerned, it was a blessed confluence.

From the September/October 2014 Horn Book Magazine.

 

Footnotes

1.  Think only of the prodigious science educator Herbert Zim, with thirty-two titles, from Goldfish to Lightning and Thunder to What’s Inside of Me? in a fifteen-year span. [Return to article]

2. 1931 brought Zeke, by NAACP co-founder and longtime board chairman Mary White Ovington, the story of young Zeke Lee from Alabama in his first, difficult year at Tolliver Institute, a.k.a. Tuskegee. Hildegarde Hoyt Swift made news the following year with Railroad to Freedom, the first biography of Harriet Tubman for young people (another Newbery runner-up). In 1935, the two stood alone as American Negro stories (not Caribbean or African) on a New York Public Library list save for a novel by Langston Hughes originally published for adults. [Return to article]

3. In 1938, Junior, a Colored Boy of Charleston fit the description of a child in a distinctive situation, with his very localized efforts to earn money. Lattimore’s race-sensitive illustrations won plaudits too. [Return to article]

4. A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You alone is available in French, German, Hebrew, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Japanese, and Afrikaans, at least – in most cases, curiously or tellingly, with new illustrations. [Return to article]

5. Once, McElderry demurred, and published what she called Dawn of Fear, in 1970, as a children’s book. [Return to article]

About Barbara Bader

Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this fascinating article, which mentions many favorites–even as a kid, I would sometimes pick up a kid simply on the strength of the McElderry name! And now I know I need to seek out a British edition of The Borrowers to compare illustrations–this is a series I’ve pointed to as a perfect matching of text and illustration, so I’m curious to see what the British illustrator did with it. This is an unimportant side note (well, it’s only important if you’ve ever tried to catalog Newbery books according to demographics and setting), but surely the father in Miracles on Maple Hill was a Korean War POW, rather than World War II?

  2. er, “pick up a book”. Not a kid.

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