Collecting Children’s Books: For the love of the book (and the kid)

By Noah Fleisher

There is a photograph that hangs in our house of my infant daughter and me (Fiona is 9 now, as of the printing of Collecting Children’s Books, though I’m a bit baffled how that’s happened), taken by my wife when our girl was a few precious months old. It shows us sitting together, my cheek resting gently against her head – she smelled like sugar cookies when she was a baby and I couldn’t get enough of it – as she stares off into the distance. I am reading to her Margaret Wise Brown’s classic Goodnight Moon.

That picture makes my heart swell every time I pass it. My baby girl, so sweet and smoochable; the

Co-author Noah Fleisher with his then baby daughter, Fiona. (All photos featured in "Collecting Children's Books").

Co-author Noah Fleisher with his then baby daughter, Fiona. (All photos featured in “Collecting Children’s Books”).

book, so simple, profound and readable. I cannot see the oranges and greens of the little bunny’s room without being instantly transported back to those early days of Fiona’s life (and wanting to say goodnight to a bowlful of mush). When she was born in early 2006, we bought her that book and two others: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBrantney. Neither my wife nor I could have foreseen the journey that was about to unfold for us, a journey that I get to live from beginning to end every single time I look at that lovely little snapshot.

I don’t mean the journey of parenting – an adventure unto itself like no other, as many of you reading this can certainly testify to – but, rather, that of the world of Children’s Books. Those three simple cardboard books, which we would read countless thousands of times to her, over and over and over – and which would serve as teething toys to her a few months down the line while we expanded her library – were a revelation to both my wife and I.

We read to her from the moment we brought her home. I mean it. Within an hour of her introduction to the apartment where we lived, she was in my lap listening to that baby bunny in Goodnight Moon. What followed those first few weeks and years were more children’s books, some classic, some not-so classic. It didn’t matter. My wife was a ravenous compiler of book piles carted out from the local library. She stored the titles away in her database of a brain; we read hundreds of pages a week.

Now Fiona devours fiction and non-fiction tomes by the dozens: chapter books, kid magazines, comic books, picture books, you name it. In fact, when she was a bit younger, on those occasions when she would need a little discipline, there was one quick “punishment” that would make her see the light: a quick threat to take away her books. Worked like a charm every time.

The bonus of all this is that our kid loves the written word and reads like a champ. What’s more, my wife and I reconnected with the joy of reading all the classic titles and authors of childhood again. Very quickly, as you might imagine from a household steeped in antiques and collectibles, we began to realize a burgeoning expertise in the form. We marveled at the compelling simplicity of Eric Carle’s various animals, fish, birds and bugs. We loved the messages in Margaret Wise Brown’s direct and lovely prose. A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh proved every bit as lovely and deep as he did when we were little, and the rhymes and lessons of Russell Hoban’s Frances the Badger are the axiomatic backdrop against which we measured our daughter’s social progress.

As she’s grown, we’ve moved into the great chapter books for kids, both old and new. We all love Beverly Cleary and her various tales of animals, boys named Henry, girls named Beezus and Ramona and a mouse who has a few amazing adventures on a motorcycle. Her introduction to Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Willy Wonka were not on the big screen, as they were for me. They were via the various volumes that bear those names and the genius authors and artists that imbued them with life. Last year we visited Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and were thoroughly enchanted with the unapologetic magic of Miss Mary, Dickon and sickly little Colin. I can even bear the repetitious adventures of Humphrey the Hamster, The Rainbow Fairies and the Magic Tree House, among so many that she reads for brain candy just because when Fiona wants to relax this is where she goes. It beats any video game or TV show by a mile.

My wife and I are not unique in this immersion in Children’s Books. Our generation, a bridge

Noah Fleisher's favorite childhood book.

Noah Fleisher’s favorite childhood book.

generation between the pre-digital “dark days” when we were forced to read books and the current overkill of the Web in providing every detail of every day in the ones and zeroes of Google, Amazon, Instagram and the like. In fact, it has seemed to us, if anything, there has been a trend back toward a more simple engagement with the written page since the world has moved mostly online. I know we hunger for it and seek it out wherever we can. I know we have friends who are the same.

Given my longtime relationship with the good folks at Krause Publications, and my history in the antiques and collectibles business, it was a short leap to creating Collecting Children’s books. When editorial director Paul Kennedy and I started talking about the book, we both felt the time was ripe. It’s easy to covet the first and best editions of these books, to see them in their original glory as presented to their first lucky readers.

May Collecting Children’s Books inspire you to re-connect both with those books that take you back to the early days of your own child’s life, but also to the early days of your own, to bedtimes and downtimes spent curled on the couch, or snuggled under covers, adventuring throughout the world with your favorite characters.

Included are our best efforts to quantify and qualify what it means to both love and collect children’s literature. It’s about story and philosophy as much as it’s about material culture. We have looked at what it means to collect first edition classics, signed and unsigned, from the great names of the past. We have attempted to define the best of the various eras in Children’s Literature that populate the 20th and early 21st centuries. We have come to realize – and I hope you will forgive us any oversight as concerns any title or author you or your kids love – that to completely explore this topic would require an encyclopedia of many volumes. We’ve had to make choices based on the information and images available to us. We apologize to so much of the great Children’s Books of the 19th century that we simply could not cover; the topic is just too vast to sum up in these pages.

My Favorite Children’s Book

While the written word has largely become my life as an adult (both professionally and personally, for enjoyment) I was not a kid that read too terribly much, nor do I have a tremendous amount of memories of being read to by my parents – a forgivable thing, considering that they wrangled with three boys every day, all of us just a year apart and my two older brothers such hellions that I imagine they just wanted a few minutes of peace at the end of the day when we were all finally safely carted off to bed.

It wasn’t until I was in college, in fact, that I began to take extended refuge in the printed word. When it came on me, however, it came in a flood and I wolfed words by the tens of thousands. I do, however, clearly recall my favorite book from when I was a small boy. It was called Jerome, written by Phillip Ressner and illustrated by Jerome Snyder (Parents Magazine Press, 1967). It’s long been out of print and I would doubt there are 10 people reading this that have ever heard of it.

I don’t know how this psychedelic little book came into our house when I was a kid, or why, but it had a huge impact on me and, since it is neither famous nor collectible, I would like to share it with you. The copy you see here was given to me by a friend in the months before my daughter’s birth. I mentioned it in a passing conversation and she, without me knowing, found it online, ordered it, and within two weeks placed it in my hands.

Jerome is an odd and ambiguous little story, beautifully illustrated and probably not too terribly well-written. It follows the title character’s journey one day as he is sitting on a lily pad catching flies to eat.

Family photo of co-authors Lauren Zittle and Noah Fleisher, and their daughter, Fiona.

Family photo of co-authors Lauren Zittle and Noah Fleisher, and their daughter, Fiona.

He sees a witch passing by and, in simple observation, remarks upon what an ugly old witch she is. The witch reprimands him, telling him that it’s not nice to call people witches and, while inferring she could cast a terrible spell on him, says that, instead, she is going to make him a prince.

She does so, without fanfare of any kind, and tells him to go do Princely deeds. Jerome himself seems nonplussed by it and, in fact, is unchanged in appearance. It’s obviously a trick, but Jerome is un-phased. He marches off to the closest town and introduces himself to the skeptical and laughing townspeople as the Prince that does Princely deeds.

Mocked at first by the townspeople, who see only a frog, he is finally assigned a Princely deed: Slay the giant crow that is eating all their corn crops. Jerome accepts the challenge and off he goes to confront the big black bird. As it turns out, the giant crow is gobbling all the corn out of fear of not having enough for himself. After all, who could resist such juicy kernels of corn? Jerome assures him that he himself does not like corn, that he knows many animals that want nothing to do with corn and that all the crow needs to do is share with the townspeople and there will be plenty for everyone. The crow, satisfied, flies off.

In doing two more Princely deeds for the townspeople – convincing a fire-breathing dragon to work at the town dump incinerating rubbish instead of burning maidens and tricking a cruel wizard with crazy psychedelic green glasses who gets whatever he wishes for into turning himself back into the carefree boy he once was – they come to venerate Jerome, convinced he really is a Prince. They reward Jerome with a little castle, right by a pond with lily pads, where he can sit all day and catch flies to eat.

Just looking at the artwork of this book, feeling the board covers and the thick, treated paper, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. I can smell the yellow sunlight and dust in my room as I read it sprawled out on the carpet. It is a powerful thing, this little book. Jerome spoke to me because I felt, like him, that I had goodness in me. That I had the capability to help and to create change though I might not have seemed it to those around me.

In the end, Jerome solves the problems with brains – not brawn – and realizes his true potential to be, without a doubt, a fine prince. I’m no prince, but I do believe in brain over brawn, any day, and I do believe in everyone’s realization of their true potential no matter how they look or what anyone may think of them.

On Collecting

Both Lauren and I have understood, since we started working on this project, that it would be impossible to cover every great children’s book. What it is at its heart, besides a trip through time and childhood, is a book about collecting. Hopefully more than a few people who have no experience in the collecting marketplace will see something that piques their interest and decide to pursue it further. That is the very essence of collecting: pursuing something because it speaks to you.

Values and value ranges have been assigned to most of the images you’ll see, and they have been culled from auction results. They are not meant to be a strict price guide that stridently quantifies every dog-ear and split spine. There are variations on first editions, first printings, signed volumes and author inscriptions – all things that can affect the value of a given book. What we have set out to do is to give you a sense of what you can find out there. In many cases the books presented would go for more than suggested, and in many cases less. It has to be about the chase, because, as stated above, it speaks to you.

Collecting is an emotional pursuit. Ask any expert and they will tell you, if you don’t love it, don’t go

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after it. This holds very true with children’s books. If this book is your entrée into the marketplace, congratulations and have fun, but make sure you do your due diligence when it comes to buying.

Get to know dealers and collectors, find shows and auctions and attend them. Ask a million questions. Any good auctioneer or dealer will be happy to spend as much time with you as you are willing to spend. Their level of accessibility will rise with your interest and enthusiasm. If you don’t love it, don’t put money into it – that is the bottom line. The best examples of first edition children’s literature, where the biggest names are concerned, is still a competitive market and one that requires a solid foundation to make the right choices. Meanwhile, however, at the lower and mid-levels of the market, there are simply a ton of great books waiting to be discovered – cheaply.

If a collector is focused, willing to invest the time to learn what’s out there and what to pay for it, there’s a broad world of charming books awaiting.

We also had to ask ourselves the question as to whether the massive shift toward digital everything in the last 15 years has affected collectors, and the answer is: certainly, for better and for worse. Things like the iPad, Amazon and the proliferation of video games has certainly punched the rare book market in the gut, but it’s no knockout.

On one hand, technology has leveled the playing field and made clear, for the most part, who has what book and where it is – that’s a positive. The negative is that there is now a second generation that has been raised in an almost exclusively digital manner and there’s been a fall-off not only in the amount of people actually reading physical books, but also in the amount of people seeking out the classics for their kids in any format.

The positive to that negative? There’s so much more available to the dedicated and intrepid collector and prices are much more uniform across the board. It’s also easy to see now an emerging backlash movement against digital life. In a few generations we may well see a concerted movement back to the printed page, a mid-21st century revival countermanding digital media’s pronouncement of death upon print and making you and the collection you are lovingly putting together look that much better to your children and grandchildren.

What do you then look for in your first edition children’s books? Besides the titles you love?

“Three words: Condition, condition, condition,” said James Gannon, director of Rare Books at Heritage Auctions. “Does it have its original dust jacket? Is it signed or inscribed? Is it in good shape or is it torn? Is the hardback cover in good condition? Are the corners bent or shredded? Are the pages dog-eared? Does it have all the pages in it and, most importantly, does it say ‘first printing’ on that title page?”

The Auction Archives at PBA Galleries in San Francisco (PBAGalleries.com), Bloomsbury in London (Bloomsbury.com), LiveAuctioneers.com or Heritage Auctions (HA.com) are a good place to start any search and to get a good sense of price and condition. Mainstream booksellers like Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books and Powell’s Books (out of Portland, Ore.) all feature good first edition children’s books and can give you a good idea of what retail is on a given title. Smart collectors, or would-be collectors, are all also well-served to check out online booksellers like Alibris.com, Biblio.com and Abebooks.com.

All and any of the above are enough to give you a sense of what’s out there and, hopefully, a good bead on that signed first-edition Harry Potter you’ve been coveting since your kids starting reading the books.

A last word of advice from Gannon to the neophyte: This is a true buyer’s market right now.

“In the end, I would urge any new collector to find a dealer or an auctioneer that you trust and have a good rapport with,” said Gannon. “There has been, and will continue to be, a proliferation of small auction houses selling collections of good books. This is a side effect of the closing of so many brick and mortar stores due to current market conditions.”

This means patience, it means not rushing out immediately and buying from the top auctioneers and dealers in the field as they tend to the expensive side. A good relationship with a reputable dealer is very desirable, but there are many tools available to speed along an education.

“Go find offerings that others are missing,” said Gannon. “With a computer you can do this from home mostly by looking at auctions and specialty sites and using want lists and keywords to get what you want. The fun comes in getting a great kid’s book before anyone else and paying much less for the effort.”

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