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Dr. Seuss: a 20th century cultural phenomenon

NEW YORK – Is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard of Dr. Seuss? Certainly every American baby boomer is familiar with the iconic author and illustrator of such quirky, classic kids’ books as The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who and If I Ran the Circus.

In all, Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated more than 60 books that were translated into over 20 languages and sold 600 million copies. No wonder his name is known the world over. He wasn’t just an author and illustrator; Dr. Seuss was a true cultural phenomenon.

Colored marker on paper sketch drawing of the Cat in the Hat, signed by Dr. Seuss, 8 x 10in. Sold for $2,500 at an auction held Jan. 12, 2017 by Christiana Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Christiana Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Theodor Seuss “Ted” Geisel (1904-1991) was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father managed the family brewery until Prohibition, when he was appointed to supervise the city’s public park system. Young Geisel entered Dartmouth College and became editor of the school’s humor magazine, the Jack-O-Lantern. When he and some fraternity brothers were caught drinking gin on campus (Prohibition had not yet been repealed), Geisel was ordered by Dartmouth’s dean to step down from the Jack-O-Lantern. He stayed on, secretly, using the name Seuss – his mother’s maiden name, which actually rhymes with “voice” – and it stuck. The “Doctor” was added later.

Geisel’s early artwork often employed the shaded texture of pencil drawings or watercolors, but in his children’s books of the postwar period, he generally made use of a starker medium pen and ink normally using just black, white, and one or two colors.

Narragansett Beer serving tray with an image illustrated by Dr. Seuss, 12in wide, only a few edge nicks, otherwise excellent. Sold for $270 at an auction held Aug. 10, 2014 by Morphy Auctions. Image courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

His later books, such as The Lorax, used more colors. Geisel’s style was unique – his figures were often “rounded” and somewhat droopy, like the faces of the Grinch and The Cat in the Hat. Almost all his buildings and machinery were devoid of straight lines, even when he was representing real objects. For example, If I Ran the Circus shows a droopy hoisting crane and a droopy steam calliope.

Geisel’s illustrations often conveyed motion vividly. He was fond of a kind of “voilà” gesture in which the hand flipped outward and the fingers spread slightly backward with the thumb up. This motion was done in the introduction of the various acts of If I Ran the Circus, and in the introduction of the “Little Cats” in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. He was also fond of drawing hands with interlocked fingers, making it look as though his characters were twiddling their thumbs. He was a true original, someone whose artistic style was instantly recognizable.

Four Dr. Seuss limited edition prints, including ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,’ edition 1506/2500, ‘Oh, The Stuff you Will Learn!,’ edition 995/2500, ‘Hop on Pop,’ edition 188/1500 (shown), and ‘Star Belly Friends,’ edition 576/1500, offset lithographs in colors, each signed in plate lower right, with embossed stamp lower left. Sold for $4,800 at an auction held June 14, 2020 by Clars Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Clars and LiveAuctioneers

“Dr. Seuss had a tremendous talent for bringing whimsical characters to life,” said Alexa Malvino, a senior fine art specialist with Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, California. “No matter the age of his audience, it’s impossible to not be captivated by his vibrant colors and imaginative designs. The magical works he created under his nom de plume Dr. Seuss, geared for children’s books and drastically different from his work as a political cartoonist, have transcended generations.”

Malvino said Dr. Seuss has been a household name since the 1950s. “He invites his viewers to enter the vast world of imagination where animals talk, landscapes take on other worldly designs, and vibrant shapes and patterns distort illusions of space and time,” she remarked. “To say he was a pioneer in children’s cartoons would be an understatement.”

Signed ink watercolor on paper attributed to Dr. Seuss, image of creature in Pink detailing, unframed on paper, 7 x 9in. Sold for $448 at an auction held April 15, 2020 by the Benefit Shop Foundation. Image courtesy of the Benefit Shop Foundation and LiveAuctioneers

Pam Stone, owner and founder of the Benefit Shop Foundation Inc. in Mount Kisco, New York, described Dr. Seuss’s work as “whimsical artworks and fun to look at.” She said, “For most of us who grew up reading his books, these fantastical creatures, especially the Cat in the Hat, are fun to look at but they go deeper than that. Geisel created these with a serious-minded goal in mind: to teach children how to read, be confident and above all else, to use their imagination. Books like I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! or Oh, The Places You’ll Go are two of his books that first come to my mind, which explore these themes.”

Vince Sarchese of American Antique Auctions in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, said Dr. Seuss’s artistic style is immediately recognized all over the world. “His creative characters and environments function together in a kind of Rube Goldberg world, so playful and joyous but ready to fall apart at any second,” Sarchese said. As an illustrator, he consistently brought his written stories to life – no easy task. He kept children wanting more all the time through his kinetic and iconic characters. His art is whimsical, joyful and sometimes even angry, but always effective. I would rate him as a first-class illustrator.”

Dr. Seuss giclee on canvas, titled ‘Golden Girl,’ signed lower left, numbered 197/375, 36 x 24in, framed 44 x 32in. Sold for $1,845 at an auction held May 24, 2019 by Neue Auctions. Image courtesy of Neue Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Alexa Malvino said Dr. Seuss’s work and imagery have been desirable and sought after since their creation. “Not only have more than 600 million copies of his books been sold, but many of those stories have been made into motion pictures, several in recent years,” she stated. “The art scene has also benefited from his coveted images. Collectable prints, sculptures, and even rare paintings and drawings have sold for astonishing values, at both galleries and auctions alike.”

In fact, Malvino added, one of Dr. Seuss’s highest auction records was the sale of a small original illustration from his book The King’s Stilts, which she said sold for just over $80,000 in 2007. “Today, reproduction works and newly printed ‘limited edition’ series do threaten the market of his works by flooding it, thus driving down prices,” she pointed out. “But, for truly original works, it’s possible the market will never diminish, just as his stories and captivating imagery show no signs of disappearing from American, or even international, culture. As long as his art continues to bring out the child in all of us, it’s likely we’ll always keep wanting more.”

Pair of Dr. Seuss first day covers with Dr. Seuss drawings, signed, from the Cordelia Platt autograph collection. Platt was the president of the United Autograph Collectors Club. Sold for $172 at an auction held Nov. 9, 2019 by American Antique Auctions. Image courtesy of American Antique Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“The market is fairly steady and strong for Dr. Seuss artwork, with original pen and ink and watercolor illustrations being among the most collectible,” The Benefit Shop Foundation’s Pam Stone said. “These works, especially rare and unpublished ones, have brought around $10,000 each in the past. Marker illustrations, often in red and blue, are more commonly seen and, when signed, can bring a few hundred dollars. We sold several such artworks recently, and buyer interest was high among new collectors just starting to get into collecting this genre.”

Vince Sarchese said with children learning to read books by Dr. Seuss and billions of books in circulation, there’s little doubt his original works will continue to increase in value. “The interest has never been higher and has been increasing in recent years,” he said. “I can’t see any decrease in demand on the horizon for the works of Dr. Seuss. His unique style succeeds in making us laugh and think. Just like any other art or antique, provenance and condition are the key to value. The great thing is, small signed works are still affordable, but I wonder for how much longer.”

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.

Baum, L. Frank, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first edition, first state of the text and first state of the plates, octavo, Geo. M. Hill Co., Chicago and New York, 1900. Green morocco slipcase. Auctioned Dec. 16, 2009 for $53,100. LiveAuctioneers / Profiles in History image

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.

Lot of three titles signed by Maurice Sendak, illustrated, and authored by Ruth Krauss, “Somebody Else’s Nut Tree And Other Tales From Children,” “A Hole Is to Dig: A First Book of Definitions,” and “Lullabies And Night Songs,” published in 1971, 1952, and 1965, respectively. Sold for $250 at auction June 1, 2017 through Waverly Books. Waverly Books image

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.

Wells, Carolyn, illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith, “Seven Ages of Childhood,” first edition, NY: Moffat Yard 1909, tan gilt cloth, round pictorial paste-on, 56 pages. Cloth slightly darkened on edges from inoffensive cover stain, occasional foxing, VG. $400 through Aleph-Bet Books. Aleph-Bet Books image

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.

Milne, A.A., “Winnie the Pooh (And) The House at Pooh Corner,” Russian first edition, NY: Dutton 1967, cloth, 221 pages. Top edge rubbed, otherwise VG+ in frayed dust wrapper with a few mends on verso. $125 through Aleph-Bet Books. Aleph-Bet Books image

“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.

Children’s Books to Prime Your Summer Reading List

School’s out for the summer, and it’s time to stock up on vacation reading for the kids. This weekend, we’re presenting an auction of collectible children’s classics. Here are 6 highlights that are sure to tug those nostalgic heart strings and bring your children joy.

Food for thought is a first edition of the Peanuts Lunch Bag Cook Book, which has been signed by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. Published in 1970, the book is in near fine condition in a dust jacket graded very good. It is estimated at $160-$200.

‘Peanuts Lunch Bag Cook Book,’ first edition, 1970, signed by Charles Schulz. Estimate: $160-$200. Jasper52 image

 

Children can have fun learning the alphabet the old-fashioned way by absorbing the words and illustrations of The Teddy Bear ABC, which was published by H.M. Caldwell.

‘The Teddy Bear ABC,’ by Laura Rinkle Johnson, illustrated by Margaret Landers Sanford, published by H.M. Caldwell, Boston. Estimate: $325-$390. Jasper52 image

 

The Book of Fairy Tales illustrated by Henry M. Brock carries a $375-$450 estimate. Brock was a British illustrator and landscape painter of the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of Brock’s illustrations were for classic Victorian and Edwardian fiction.

‘Book of Fairy Tales,’ illustrated by Henry M. Brock, published by Frederick Warne, London & New York. Estimate: $375-$450. Jasper52 image

 

Pike County Ballads is an 1871 book by John Hay. The collection of post-Civil War poems is one of the first works to introduce vernacular styles of writing. Originally published in 1871, a second edition was published in 1890 and this third edition in 1912 by the Houghton Mifflin Co., which contains 35 illustrations by American artist N.C. Wyeth.

‘Pike County Ballads,’ by John Hay and illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston. Estimate: $170-$200. Jasper52 image

 

Another classic book of verse is The Bells and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. Laid into the book is a portrait of Dulac at work in his studio.

‘Bells and Other Poems’ by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Edmund Dulac, published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. Estimate: $2,000-$2,400. Jasper52 image

 

Finally, there’s a well-read copy of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s classic A Child’s Garden of Verses, published by R.H. Russell of New York.

‘Child’s Garden of Verses’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, published by R.H. Russell, New York. Estimate: $1,100-$1,320. Jasper52 image

 

There’s a treasure in this collection for you. Take a look at the full catalog and find a new addition for you bookshelf.

How Youth Literature Became Big Business

The Many Pens Behind Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Other Youth Fiction Heroes

Juvenile literature is big business. Of the top 10 most successful authors of all time – both in terms of books sold and total revenue generated – three wrote for young audiences. Those titans of youth fiction include Britain’s Enid Blyton, illustrator/cartoonist-turned-writer Dr. Seuss, and, of course, Harry Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling, whose book sales surpass all but those of William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and a few other long-established authors, including Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele and Harold Robbins.

Today, the names of successful writers of youth-oriented literature – Stephenie Meyer, Veronica Roth, etc. – are virtual “brands” of their own and known the world over. But there was a time when book publishers owned the authors’ invented names and used salaried, in-house ghostwriters to pen the riveting tales of young but confident characters like Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the earliest protagonists of the late-19th/early 20th-century adolescent-fiction genre: the Rover Boys. The writers were interchangeable, but the tone of each series remained remarkably consistent throughout.

1903 photo portrait of Edward Stratemeyer from the Stratemeyer Syndicate records, Manuscripts and Archives Division. Public domain image

The first book packager to aim its books at children rather than adults was the Stratemeyer Syndicate, founded by New Jersey publisher Edward Stratemeyer. A national survey conducted in 1922 revealed that, by far, most books read at leisure by American children were titles produced by Stratemeyer.

What made Stratemeyer’s books different was their focus on entertainment, as opposed to moral instruction. Children could tap into their imaginations and mentally immerse themselves into the adventures of sci-fi savant Tom Swift or boarding school sleuths the Dana Girls, or for the very young, the Bobbsey Twins.

 

 

Scan of the cover of the original 1910 book Tom Swift and His Motorcycle, 1910, from a series ghostwritten by numerous Stratemeyer Syndicate in-house writers using the pen name Victor Appleton. Public domain image

No fewer than 15 ghostwriters produced the hugely successful Nancy Drew books under the pen name “Carolyn Keene,” although Mildred Wirt (later Mildred Wirt Benson) is credited as having been the principal writer. The writers initially were paid $125 for each book and were required by their contract to relinquish all rights to their work and to maintain confidentiality. That’s a far cry from, say, J.K. Rowling’s lucrative deals, which have led to her astounding net worth of an estimated $750 million.

15 Nancy Drew titles actually used in the filming of the opening sequence of the movie ‘Nancy Drew: Mystery in the Hollywood Hills.’ Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and PBA Galleries

The Stratemeyer series of books about teenage detective Nancy Drew began in 1930 with The Secret of the Old Clock. It was followed with a new book release every year for the next 26 years. A joint publishing venture between Stratemeyer and Grosset & Dunlap added 21 more titles from 1959 through 1979, followed by the last 22 books of the series, which were issued as a Stratemeyer/Simon & Schuster collaboration, from 1979 through 1985.

‘The Secret of the Old Clock,’ Nancy Drew mystery originally published in 1930. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Gray’s Auctioneers

A cultural icon, Nancy Drew is cited as a formative influence by a number of successful women, from Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Sonia Sotomayor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush. Feminist literary critics have analyzed the character’s enduring appeal, arguing variously that Nancy Drew is a mythic hero, an expression of wish fulfillment, or an embodiment of contradictory ideas about femininity.

‘The Secret of the Golden Pavilion,’ Nancy Drew mystery originally published in 1959. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and PBA Galleries

Where Nancy Drew appealed mostly to girls, amateur detectives Frank and Joe Hardy – the Hardy Boys – attracted a mostly male readership. Like the Nancy Drew books, which all carried the Carolyn Keene byline, the Hardy Boys titles were created by a number of different ghostwriters who used the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. Nineteen of the first 25 Hardy Boys books were the work of Canadian journalist Leslie McFarlane. The series enjoyed a long original-print run lasting from 1927 through 2005. Worldwide, more than 70 million copies of Hardy Boys books have been sold, and the first title of the series, The Tower Treasure, still sells over 100,000 copies per year worldwide.

‘The Disappearing Floor,’ first edition Hardy Boys mystery published in 1940. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Heritage Auctions

Both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have reappeared in other forms of entertainment, including feature films, TV shows, board games, and video games. But to collectors, the most imaginative way to experience their teen heroes’ adventures is still through a book from the original series, especially with the colorful dust jacket still intact.