Collecting Children's Books
Tread gently, for you are entering the Realm of Imagination....
In this constantly changing digital era, physical books are rapidly becoming cherished artifacts of our past, special talismans which will always retain their magical powers. Nowhere is this truer than with fine children's books; they have a unique enchantment all their own.
If you're interested in collecting children's books, here are a few titles which will add to your knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of children's literature and illustrated books. We'll add titles here as we think of it.
Almost anything written by Leonard S. Marcus is interesting and informative. We highly recommend "Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon" and "Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom." The subjects of these books were both enormously influential in the field of 20th century children's books, Margaret Wise Brown as a writer and Ursula Nordstrom as the editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper during an exciting, innovative period for children's books. Marcus' "Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature" traces the history of children's book publishing from colonial times to the present.
Barbara Bader's "American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within" is a splendid book, fun to read, and one of the best introductions to American illustrated books for children. Bader discusses trends in children's books and closely examines many important illustrators and their work. This book is an absolute must for anyone with an interest in 20th century illustrated children's books. You'll sometimes see us reference this work in our book descriptions.
"Children's literature has its roots deeply planted in conservative moral teaching, and its goal is socialization and, often, conformity to prevailing ideology. Yet one has only to look at many of the exquisite books ... to know that the other great function of children's books involves the stimulation and liberation of the imagination. Surely, more than any other form of literature and art, illustrated children's books can be said to respond to the fundamental duality of purpose ascribed to the arts of the Western world: to teach and to delight -- docere et delectare."
--David Rhodes and Gloria Werner in the foreword to "Picturing Childhood: Illustrated Children's Books from University of California Collections, 1550-1990," UCLA 1997.
There are many reasons why children's books are collected, not the least of which is the endlessly fascinating art they often contain. Reading and looking at children's books is a wonderful, fun way to enjoy some marvelous artwork. One of my favorite things about children's books is their humor -- sometimes subtle and sometimes hilariously outrageous! Children's books are collected for the sheer love of the books and the pleasure of building a collection which is meaningful to the person putting the collection together. There are many ways to approach collecting children's books, depending on one's interests.
Books which were special and important to us as children is one entry into collecting children's books. Finding attractive copies of old favorites in first edition with dustjacket is very satisfying to many collectors.
It is wise to be cautious when buying collectible children's books. First editions of children's books don't always follow the same conventions as other firsts from the same publishers and non-specialists may not know as much about children's books as booksellers who specialize in the field. If you are unsure as to how to identify a first edition you want to purchase, you are well-advised to buy from an experienced children's book specialist. If you have questions about a book you are purchasing, by all means ask the dealer those questions.
A book described as a First Edition should be a First Printing, however, sometimes books which are later printings are described as First Editions. This can be very confusing and misleading to First Edition collectors. Popular titles go through many printings but it is the First Printing which is the "True First Edition" (a rather redundant term, really).
Simply because a book does not specifically state that it is a later printing does not mean that it IS a first edition!
A word about books signed by the author with an inscription vs books which are "flatsigned": The current preference of some collectors for books which are signed without mention of a "previous owner" is quite recent -- is, in fact, primarily an internet phenomena. Pre-internet, a book which was signed and inscribed by the author was considered preferable to a book with just a simple signature. One of the obvious reasons for this is that it's much more difficult to forge an inscription and signature than it is to forge just a simple signature!
As to condition, I sometimes feel we should post something like this:
WARNING: Many of these books were owned by actual children. Hopefully most of the wee tots were in the habit of washing their hands.
Yes, children's books were usually owned by children. They are the audience the books were created, designed and intended for and that's part of the charm of children's books. And so there are frequently fond gift inscriptions from family or friends, dustjackets are often price-clipped (heaven forfend!) and sometimes there are little page turning dimples...and worse. We try to avoid the "and worse" and offer the nicest copies we can find. But the reality is that many children's books were read to sorry ends. And, since children received many of their 'better books' as gifts, price-clippings and inscriptions are somewhat inevitable and are part of the history of a book. Dealers rarely mentioned such things when cataloguing pre-internet. After all, children bought far fewer books for themselves than adults bought for them.
Some collectors direct their focus to copies of "The Night Before Christmas" also known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Clement Clarke Moore's timeless poem was first published anonymously in 1823 and over the years hundreds of illustrated versions have been published to the delight of children and the joy of collectors.
I've always thought it would be interesting to put together a collection of non-fiction children's books from the last century. The way in which we introduce and explain the world to children changes over the years and is reflective of the larger society. Popular illustration styles change too, from the detailed drawings of the teens and twenties, through the strongly designed images of the 50's, to the outrageous colors of the 60's, and so on. Anything which interests you is fair game for collecting so there's lots of room to be imaginative.
Another intriguing avenue to explore is children's books set in your state or your town, or children's books written or illustrated by authors and illustrators from your state. You might have to do a little research if this suits your fancy but that's part of the fun. You learn and build on what you've learned and your collection reflects your interest.
Book collecting is not a superficial pastime, be it children's books, modern firsts or whatever books are your passion. The more you learn about the books which deeply interest you, the more enjoyment you'll derive from your collection.
When starting a children's book collection, by all means collect what you truly love. Some of the most exciting collections are built by people who have an idea they want to pursue and a feeling for what they consider interesting and meaningful. Book collecting is an adventure!
We will continue to add to this page.
I decided to add this image just because I like it. It's Phil Stong and Kurt Wiese as drawn by the latter in the early 1950's. Taken from the dustjacket of a book by them, the caption reads: K. Wiese / With apologies to Phil.
I've added a photo of author / illustrator Jeanne Bendick, ca 1955.
Self-portrait of Tomie dePaola with his two Abyssinian cats, ca 1979, from a dustjacket.
Don Freeman ca 1975, from a dustjacket.