Collecting Children's Storybooks

April 10, 2012

Who among us, while visiting a shop or show, hasn’t experienced a happy rush of nostalgia at the sight of a book warmly remembered from childhood? And who would have dreamed that the sprightly illustrations, the rhythmic word patterns from so long ago would still have the power to evoke delight twenty, thirty, forty years later? Indeed, many of us were first introduced to the world of fine art via the enchanting pages of a cherished storybook.
In ever increasing numbers collectors are revisiting the magical lands where following a rabbit down a hole, poling a raft down the Mississippi, saving a wild herd of mustangs and meeting a top-hatted cat are regular occurrences. Today collector interest in children’s books is a fast growing phenomenon, with better known works in prime condition fetching premium prices, with children’s literature including fine illustrations often the priciest of all.
Students of juvenile literature are sometimes surprised to discover that just a couple of centuries ago books written for the enjoyment of kids were not available at all! Back in the 1600s children were encouraged to read, but only literature which was considered “instructive” was permitted. Of course, our parents like our books to deliver a helpful message, too. But the 1649 volume called Spiritual Milk for Boston Babies in Either England, Drawn From The Breasts of Both Testaments for Their Soul’s Nourishment is surely a far cry from The Little Engine That Could! Leading Puritan writer James Janeway’s Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children doesn’t sound like much fun either.
Things got a little bit more interesting when John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress appeared in 1678. It was intended to teach “moral development,” but the hero, Christian, has some pretty neat adventures with a satisfying amount of gratuitous violence and children apparently found it entertaining.
It was English writer/philosopher John Locke who proposed the then-radical idea that perhaps children who could read should be provided with pleasant, easy books. Further, he thought, if the books had pictures, the young readers might be encouraged to read even more. He recommended Aesop’s Fables as an appropriate selection for young readers.
Early in the 18th century two books written for adults - Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels - were quickly embraced by children. In the mid-1700s John Newbury, an admirer of John Locke and a writer and publisher as well, began a brand new line of books written especially for children. A Pretty Little Pocket Book and History of Little Goody Two Shoes might not be very entertaining by today’s standards, but young readers of 1795 must have been delighted by the gilt-papered covers, the attractively decorated pages and the engaging stories and rhymes. Newbury’s success tipped off other publishers that perhaps there was a market for books written specifically for children. Today the coveted Newbury Award given to the author of each year’s outstanding contribution to children’s literature is named for this marketing pioneer.
In the early 1800s in Germany brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, students of German folk talkes, put together a volume containing eighty-five stories, including such now-familiar titles as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. A couple of years later a second edition was released, this one with illustrations by Ludwig Grimm, and in 1823 a translation was published in English under the title German Popular Stories. Since then hundreds of artists have illustrated the time-tested tales - including Rumpelstiltskin and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Then in 1828 a young Dane named Hans Christian Andersen began to write down the stories and poems he made up for the amusement of neighborhood children, and he produced a new “fairy tale” book for his young fans every Christmas.
Lewis Carroll and Edwad Lear created landmarks in nonsense and fantasy, both considered proper fare for Victorian children. Here, for perhaps the first time, were stories written especially for children, devoid of lesson or moral. Delightful and absurd characters cavorted through the pages purely to give pleasure to young readers.
Several 19th-century English artists had significant impact in the children’s book field. They were Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott. Greenaway’s drawings reflected the happy days of childhood, with blossoming trees and primroses dotting the English landscape. Greenaway’s name, like Caldecott’s, has been given to an award honoring distinguished achievement in the art of illustration. The Kate Greenaway medal is given each year to an outstanding British illustrator of children’s books. Walter Crane illustrated more than forty books. Collectors sometimes note that his work reflects an appreciation of Japanese color prints. Caldecott’s first endeavor was the 1878 The History of John Gilpin. His jolly depictions of robust characters have amused generations of book lovers.
At around the turn of the century, books about realistic situations began to appear. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm acquainted readers with new locales, and Louisa May Alcott’s stories of family life made readers feel that they knew the March family personally. Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, published in 1880 introduced another very real heroine to youngsters everywhere. A span of years, roughly between the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century, up until the beginning of the First World War, saw what’s known as “the Golden Age of American Illustrations for children.” Well known artists including Winslow Homer, Maxfield Parrish and N. C. Wyeth illustrated the works of some of the country’s best writers.
Fortunately, some precious illustrated storybooks have survived the years, the grubby little fingers and the crayon marks, and have found their way into the safety of rare book collections or museums. But what about those of us who can’t spend $1,000 for a first edition of Little Women, or even $200 for a mint copy of Peter Rabbit - but who still want to build a collection around that nostalgic world of children’s literature?
Some book dealers do a brisk side business in nicely matted illustrations from 19th- and 20th-century children’s books. Such illustrations are readily available in what’s known as “reading copies” of old children’s books. These are the dog-eared copies, those which perhaps have worn covers - or sometimes no covers at all. Maybe some of the illustrations have been torn or spoiled by baby’s crayoned artwork. But still, there are often charming, colorful illustrations intact and ready for matting and framing...a unique touch to the book lover’s décor whether hung singly or in groupings. Some collectors focus on illustrations by a particular artist. Virginia Lee Burton, Tasha Tudor, Jesse Wilcox Smith, Arthur Rackham...the possibilities are literally endless!
As with any collectible, you can spend a lot or a little in this field. An autographed mint condition copy of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might fetch upwards of $10,000, while a First edition of Tasha Tudor’s lovely 1954 A is For Annabelle is still a bargain at around $50. A “reading copy” of a 1927 volume of Famous Stories and Verse with dozens of illustrations suitable for framing will cost only a couple of dollars.
This is a wide open field for collectors. Perhaps soon at a show or sale you’ll find that special book or picture or story which holds wonderful childhood memories for you. If you plan to start collecting seriously, remember that condition is paramount. A dust jacket always adds to the value and the condition of the binding is important, too. Be sure that all the pages are intact and that none of the illustrations are missing! You might want to ask your librarian or bookseller for American Picture Books from Noah’s Ark to The Beast Within by Barbara Bader.
Antiques & Auction News Article: Collecting Children's Storybooks
Antiques & Auction News Article: Collecting Children's Storybooks
Antiques & Auction News Article: Collecting Children's Storybooks
Antiques & Auction News Article: Collecting Children's Storybooks
Antiques & Auction News Article: Collecting Children's Storybooks


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