7 Things You Need To Know About...Vintage Children's Books



2018-01-25 10:37:52

In the latest of our weekly collecting guides, we bring you seven things you need to know about collecting vintage children's books.

The nostalgia factor

As any collector will tell you, nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Whether it's model trains, Star Wars toys or Beatles memorabilia, people will always want to reclaim a treasured piece of their childhood.

Having an emotional connection to the things you collect makes the hobby so much more rewarding – and this is especially true when it comes to children's books.

Whether it's a popular classic or an obscure, half-remembered title, rediscovering books from your childhood and building your own personal collection can be a wonderful journey.

Maybe you want to collect the books you read to your own children, or your grandchildren.

A collection of books from their childhood would make a beautiful present to them later in life, and by then they may also have increased in value.

And if you're looking to build a collection as an investment, you can always bank on nostalgia to keep the market for children's books strong.

Authors & Illustrators to look out for

There are some authors whose timeless children's books will always be popular with collectors.

Classics by the likes of Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, L. Frank Baum, A.A Milne, J. R. R. Tolkien and J.M Barrie are still in print and beloved around the world, often more than 100 years after they were first published.

The most collectable books by these authors are their most famous works, which are rediscovered by each new generation of young readers.

But be warned: if you want to build a collection of classics such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, The Tale of Peter Rabbit or Winnie the Pooh, you'll need some pretty deep pockets.

Original copies of these iconic books can sell for five, six or in some cases seven-figure sums.

So let's say you're not a millionaire, and you're not sure where to start.

How about a cat in a hat?

Perhaps the most celebrated American children's author of all-time is Theodore Geisel, or as you may know him, Dr Seuss.

He wrote 50 books during his lifetime, with his first And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937, and his last, Oh, the Places You'll Go!, in 1990.

Look for first editions of his most well-known books such as The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Yertle the Turtle and Green Eggs and Ham.

With such a long publishing history, and so many editions of his various books, you could easily spend your life collecting nothing but Dr Seuss titles and easily fill a library.

Further notable and collectible books from the 1930s - 50s to look out for include:

  • The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff (1933)
  • The Story of Ferdinand by Robert Lawson (1936)
  • Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans (1939)
  • Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McClosky (1941)
  • Curious George by H.A Rey (1941)
  • Harold And The Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955)
  • Eloise by Hilary Knight (1955)

Books dating from the 1960s have soared in value recently, as the children who grew up with them have become nostalgic, middle-aged collectors with enough disposable income to track them down.

Some popular 60s titles to look out for include:

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (1969)
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)
  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)

Many of the more recent collectible books are picture books, as modern collectors are increasingly focusing on rare works by illustrators as well as authors.

One of the most collectible modern-day children's book illustrators is Chris Van Allsburg, whose books Jumanji (1981) and The Polar Express (1985) both won the coveted Caldecott Medal.

For British collectors, recent titles such as We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury (1989), The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (1999) or The Snowman by Raymond Briggs (1978) are all considered modern classics, and could be good bets for the future.

Find your niche

If you've decided to start a collection, you're probably going to begin with the books you loved as a child.

But what's next?

Collecting vintage children's books will allow you to build a collection around any weird and wonderful subject you fancy. 

One of the greatest pleasures in collecting is learning about your chosen subject, so get ready to become an expert!

The easiest starting point is to track down books by a specific author. When you start to research their bibliography (back catalogue), you may be surprised at how many books they've written.

There's nothing like the thrill of discovering books by your favourite author that you never knew existed, particularly if they turn out to valuable as well!

If you're collecting picture books, then focusing on the work of a particular illustrator can be equally rewarding.

You could also specialize in a particular genre or subject, and you'll find an array of children's books about almost anything you can imagine.

  • Military stories set during WWII
  • Junior mystery novels
  • Anthropomorphic animals
  • 18th century fairy tale books
  • Chose Your Own Adventure stories
  • Antique alphabet books
  • Nature guides
  • 19th century pop-up book

If you're a history buff, children's books from specific time periods such as pre-WWI or the 1960s can offer fascinating insights into the eras in which they were written.

What to buy?

If you want to start building a collection of vintage children's books, you should be looking for first editions.

Occasionally a later version with a notable misprint or a limited edition fine binding may be more sought after – but as a general rule, it's the first printing of the first edition that you want.

The information regarding a book's edition and printing will usually be printed on the reverse of the title page.

First editions will sometimes also have different copy, such as changes to an author's biography, or even revisions to the text itself.

They may also have entirely different cover illustrations, and later editions may include a new quote or an award rosette.

Do a little research into the books you're seeking, so you'll be able to spot a true first edition from a later copy when you find one.

The addition of an author's signature, a personal inscription or even a sketch can drastically increase the value of a book.

A first edition copy of Where The Wild Things Are can sell for around $8,500 – but add Maurice Sendak's signature, and the price can rise to more than $20,000.

You'll pay a high premium for books signed by deceased authors, so it's best to buy from a reputable source, such as a specialist dealer or auction house.

If you find a rare signed copy of your favourite children's classic on eBay for a bargain price, beware. When it seems too good to be true, it almost always is.

If the author you collect is still alive and still writing, there's a good chance they'll hold a book signing event to publicise their latest work.

The best way to know a signature is real is to watch them sign it yourself (and you'll get to meet them too!).

Condition is key

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but when it comes to collecting the opposite is usually true.

Condition is absolutely everything, and you can often add or subtract another zero to the price, depending on what state a book is in.

In general, children's books tend to suffer a lot more wear and tear than other books. You're unlikely to find too many copies of A Catcher in the Rye covered with teeth marks, for instance.

Children's books get tossed around, dribbled on, drawn in, and lost at the bottom of toy boxes. And as any parent will tell you, they get re-read over, and over, and over (and over) again.

This means finding copies in top condition can be tough, and often expensive.

But if you are collecting with one eye on the future, you need to buy the best condition books you can afford.

Scuffed corners, torn dust jackets, stains and foxing (brown marks which can appear on old paper) will all depreciate the value of a book.

Always look at how the condition of a book is described, particularly when buying online. Rare books are graded on a sliding scale, with copies from the high end of 'Very Good' to 'Fine' considered the most collectible.

As your knowledge increases, you'll also be able to spot repair work on books, especially if it's been done badly.

If you're simply collecting for pleasure, rather than as an investment, then condition is less of an issue. It also means that picking up rarer vintage titles becomes more affordable.

Obviously big things like missing pages, large stains and torn covers should still be avoided, but you'll be able to forgive smaller imperfections if you're not worried about future resale value.

You'll also be able to read the books together with your own kids or grandkids, without stressing too much about bent pages or the occasional chocolaty finger print!

Valuable treasures to look out for

No matter what you collect, half the fun is in the thrill of the hunt.

So if you spot a box of old books in a thrift store or at a flea market, it's time to get digging!

You never know what you might discover, and uncovering treasure is often a much more rewarding way of building a collection than simply buying books online.

Okay, so you probably won't strike it rich – but just in case, here are a few of the children's book 'Holy Grails' to look out for.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)

10,000 copies of this classic Roald Dahl novel were printed by publisher Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S in 1964, three years before the U.K first edition appeared. Today a top condition copy will set you back around $6,500.

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1963)

Maurice Sendak's iconic book was first published by Harper & Row in 1963, and was later awarded the annual Caldecott Medal in 1964. Unlike more common later editions, first edition copies do not feature the Caldecott award on the cover, and can sell for around $8,000 - $10,000 in fine condition.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling (1997)

Just 500 first edition copies were printed, with half of those sent out to libraries in the U.K. Today copies in top condition can sell at auction for more than $80,000, making J.K Rowling's magical debut novel the world's most valuable first edition book published in the past 50 years.

The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)

The first edition of Tolkein's classic fantasy novel was published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. of London in September 1937, with an initial print run of just 1,500 books. Today these highly rare copies can sell for more than $70,000 in top condition.

Winnie the Pooh by A.A Milne (1926)

A.A Milne's first book featuring the adventures of Christopher Robin and his beloved bear was published by Methuen & Co. Ltd. True first editions are bound in green cloth beneath their dust jackets, with gilt stamps illustrations on the front board, and will set you back around $10,000 in fine condition.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)

The true first edition of Baum's first book in the Oz series was published by the George M. Hill Company in September 1900, with a first print run of 10,000 copies. Having been adapted into one of the most iconic movies ever made, first edition copies of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are now valued at more than $50,000 each.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (1900)

The true first edition of Beatrix Potter's classic book were privately printed by Potter herself in 1900, after she failed to find a publisher. She printed up 250 copies which she distributed to family and friends, before the story was eventually snapped up by Frederick Warne & Co. in 1902. These privately printed copies now fetch more than $50,000 at auction.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1866)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was first published by Macmillan in 1865, with a print run of 2,000 copies. However, illustrator John Tenniel was unhappy with how his drawings had been printed, and the books were immediately withdrawn.

Carroll had already sent out 50 copies to friends, and asked for them to be returned, but not all of them were. Today 22 of these original first edition copies are known to exist, and if you find one you can probably retire on the spot, because they're worth between $2 - $3 million each.

The next big thing?

Back in 1997, nobody could have predicted that a story about a boy wizard would become the biggest hit in publishing history.

It's almost impossible to know which current children's books will become valuable classics of the future – but there are a few tips that can help you make an educated guess.

Look for the biggest-selling children's authors of the moment, and seek out first edition copies of their earliest books.

Award-winning books can also be highly sought after, so look for titles which have won prizes such as the Caldecott Medal or the Newbery Medal (the most prestigious awards for U.S children's books) or the Carnegie Medal (for British books).

Books that become popular films can also be a good bet, so check out the latest movie news to see what productions are in the pipeline.

If a studio announces a new blockbuster trilogy based on a children's book series, it could be a good time to buy - as when the films finally hit theatres, higher demand for the original books could see values soaring.

And finally, if you have kids then simply ask them what their favourite books are. Which ones do they find exciting, scary, sad or funny? Which characters do they like the best?

If there's a particular book they love more than others, one that they read again and again, it may be worth picking up a first edition copy and stashing it somewhere safe.

That book may turn out to be a treasured piece of their childhood they remember for decades. And after all, they are the collectors of the future.

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