Children’s Books: Investing in Nostalgia
Do you remember the books you loved as a child? It’s a solid bet that at least a couple of your childhood favorites are also the favorites of collectors, and with good reason. We can all relate to the experience of having books read to us at bedtime, and later, taking pride in learning how to read those books ourselves.
We spoke with two experts in the field of collectible books: Helen Younger, founder of Aleph-Bet Books, Inc., and Catherine Payling, MBE, director of Waverly Rare Books, a subsidiary of Quinn’s Auction Galleries, to get their take on the children’s book market. In speaking with them, we learned that juvenile literature is a solid niche within the greater realm of book collecting and has been so for quite some time.
As Payling observed, the market “has been relatively stable during and after recent economic upheavals and broader changes in patterns of collecting.”
Echoing those sentiments, Younger, who has been in the collectible book business since 1977, pointed to the availability and affordability of children’s books as reasons for the continued interest among collectors.
“In the world of collectible books, children’s books, in general, are not among the most expensive – they can be a little more attainable.”
In building a collection of children’s books, keep these points in mind: edition and rarity; condition, desirability, and the potential impact of changing trends.
For example, Payling said, “If there should be a dust jacket but one isn’t present, then a book without one is [considered] comprised. Is the book signed by the author or the illustrator? Is there interesting provenance?” All are important factors with respect to desirability.
Addressing condition, Younger outlined the standards many reputable dealers use in assessing books:
- Good: Shows wear, tears, soiling, and perhaps the dust jacket is missing
- Very Good: The book is in nice condition, although it may show age to some extent. It is clean and presents nicely.
- Fine: Although it may not look as it did when brand new, it has no defects, it is clean, and nothing is missing.
- Mint: The book is flawless.
Not only is understanding differences in condition helpful when considering the purchase of a book, it is often the key factor in determining price when selling a book.
For example, as Younger pointed out, Aleph-Bet might list a copy of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat with a high price tag, but that might be because it’s a first edition, first printing, in mint condition.
As with most collecting interests, experience and time are the best teachers, according to Payling and Younger. Learning how publishers denoted first editions is an important practice, Younger added.
“It truly takes time to learn the aspects of children’s books, and to complicate things further, publishers were not consistent with how they denoted first editions,” she explains. “Some may say ‘first edition,’ some may have a number code or a combination, and some may have the date of publication on the title page and the copyright page, while some may not.”
Payling, who recently purchased a copy of Miskoo the Lucky by Mary Fairclough – one of her favorite books from childhood – recommends the following measures to gain valuable knowledge about children’s books:
- Acquire some good-quality reference books on your specific area of collecting interest, whether it is by country, century, author and so on, and use them to help make buying decisions.
- Learn to identify variations in condition.
- Learn about current market prices from online resources, especially recent auction results, whose price database is free of charge.
- Check out auction houses and their auction catalogs.
Also, attending book fairs and visiting the shops and sites of businesses specializing in rare and collectible books are all methods for amassing knowledge that will prove helpful in efforts to acquire children’s books, Younger advised.
Beginners may find it advisable to define the focus of their collection.
“Blue-chip authors, such as L. Frank Baum, Dr. Seuss, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, Maurice Sendak, and Roald Dahl are always sought after,” said Payling. “People are often motivated by childhood memories, so we see buyers looking for children’s titles popular when they were young.” Illustrated books are also highly desirable.
Younger points to children’s books published in the mid-20th century as being the current “sweet spot” in collecting. However, some lesser-known interests are gaining attention.
“Right now, we’re seeing the popularity of Russian children’s books growing,” she said. Early 20th-century Russian children’s books are distinguished by their consistently high quality of printing, illustration, and presentation. Plus, they reflect the characteristics of an evolving society.
Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, many of the books displayed lush treatment and robust illustration – a “frills and fantasy” presentation – said Younger, who formerly worked as a librarian and fosters a life-long appreciation for books. After the Revolution, children’s books, much like Russian society of that period, were stark, direct, and more focused on being utilitarian.
Another aspect of collecting to bear in mind is changing trends, Payling said. For example, values of Harry Potter books are not as high today as they were at the peak of Potter-mania.
Collecting children’s books can be rewarding, but like any type of book collecting, it requires a time investment. It pays to learn as much as possible, study market activity, and over and above all, to allow one’s own sense of nostalgia to serve as the primary guide to purchases.
About the experts:
Catherine Payling, MBE, M.A. Oxford University, was born and raised in the United Kingdom. She spent 10 years working in prestigious executive roles in London, and 15 years in Rome, Italy, where she served as curator/director of the Keats House Museum. Catherine has resided in the United States since 2011. She was an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and is married to Duncan Wu, the Raymond Wagner Professor of Literary Studies at Georgetown. Catherine has a personal collection of books, and she and her husband are lifelong collectors of fine and decorative art.
Helen Younger co-owns Aleph-Bet Books in Pound Ridge, New York, together with her husband, Marc. Her love of books began when she was a child and continued to grow as she traveled through Europe following her high school graduation. She became a professional librarian and, in the mid-1970s, established a book-selling business upon the suggestion of her mother-in-law, who organized estate sales. Helen has been a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America since 1982.