Following the First World War, children’s illustrated literature took off. In previous centuries, children’s books were often written to impart adult interests and morality. Lewis Carroll and Edmund Lear endowed even their most whimsical and fantastic creations with political satire, literary references, and (in Carroll’s case) mathematical conundrums. By the 1920s, authors and artists began to write and paint to appeal to children’s unique sensibilities. Improvements to make color printing faster, more accurate, and cheaper combined with near universal literacy in the English-speaking world to enlarge the market for books. All these factors fostered the emergence of the picture book.
Wanda Gág probably is the first notable picture-book author, though her name and work are not well known today. Gág, a successful graphic designer and painter and a friend of Georgia O’Keeffe, wrote and illustrated one of the most successful picture books in the 1920s, Millions of Cats, published by Coward McCann in 1928. The book made the shortlist (a designation officially known as an “honor” book) for the Newbery Medal, which has been awarded since 1922 to the best children’s book of the year. In 1938, the American Library Association began handing out the Caldecott Medal for the best illustrated children’s book. For many years, collectors have paid premium prices for the winners of these awards.
Gág penned more than a dozen picture books, many of them based on her original stories and hand-lettered by her brother Howard. The most successful of these books, The ABC Bunny (1933), is considered her masterwork, a prototype for young readers that was educational and entertaining. It, too, was a Newbery honor book (two other Gág books were Caldecott honor books). Her books were much loved and well read, and now finding copies in dust jackets in nice condition is difficult. Two of Gág’s books in their original pictorial jackets are Millions of Cats and The ABC. First editions may run as much as $1,500. Copies without the jacket or of later printings can be found for under $100. In general, first editions of children’s books in anything close to fine condition are scarce and command significant premiums over average copies.
The career of the most popular and widely collected picture-book author began on an ocean-going steamboat. While returning from Europe in 1936, the young illustrator Theodore Geisel, who published cartoons as Dr. Seuss, wrestled with how to impart a child’s imagination and point of view in a story. The rhythmic churning of the ship’s engines gave him a unique poetic meter and the idea of writing in verse. Before Vanguard Press picked up and published Geisel’s first picture book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1937), two dozen publishers rejected it. Since then, no other author has had a wider influence on children’s literature, literacy, and education.
Seuss’s earliest books, printed in relatively small runs, are very scarce today. A first edition of Mulberry Street in very good condition will fetch at least several thousand dollars. Other early works include The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938) and Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). Cubbins, in the original dust jacket, may cost as much as $6,800. Many of Seuss’s later books can be purchased in the three-figure range. The exception, of course, is The Cat in the Hat, which is pushing $10,000 in very good condition and twice that in truly fine shape. Moderately priced Seuss books, including a very good first of If I Ran the Circus (1956), sell for about $250.
After Seuss, arguably the most influential figure in children’s picture books in the last half of the twentieth century is Maurice Sendak. For a living author, whose most seminal work was published only forty years ago, his books command interest, adulation, and prices that rival even first editions of the rarest antiquarian children’s books. Jo Ann Reisler has a first edition, first issue of Where the Wild Things Are (1963), which won the Caldecott Medal in 1964. Reisler’s copy—signed and in its original dust jacket—is priced at $20,000. Collectors just starting to gather Sendak’s work (it’s still not too late) might look for some of his earliest picture books illustrated for other authors, such as I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss (1954). Brundibar, published in 2003, is Tony award–winning playwright Tony Kushner’s retelling of a children’s opera that the young inmates at the Terezin concentration camp performed fifty-five times during the Holocaust.
One picture-book maker who is still under the radar is Eric Carle. If you’ve ever attended a baby shower or waded through a well-strewn nursery, then you’ve seen Carle’s books. His art is instantly recognizable: collages of bold-colored tissue paper delicately pasted into familiar yet imaginatively rendered shapes, animals, and people. Like many great picture-book artists, Carle was trained as a professional graphic designer and illustrator. He began making books for children in the late 1960s, first collaborating with Bill Martin on Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (1967) and then working on his own with The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) and dozens of other titles. Carle’s early first editions can be hard to find but are not yet overly expensive. This might be due to the stigma attached to books printed on cardboard or reinforced paper, which give the impression of something that’s cheap, even if the contents are dear. Although Carle’s target audience can barely speak, he is one of the few book illustrators with his own museum, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The trick with children’s books is to start early. Prices tend to soar when collectors reach middle age and start looking back with nostalgia on the books they read as children. Prices for modern classics like Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji (1981) or Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992) are already starting to rise. Get them, and the first editions being torn to shreds by the current generation, before the prices reach the stratosphere.
The Story of Ferdinand
Leaf is said to have written The Story of Ferdinand on a whim, to provide his friend, Robert Lawson a means of showcasing his illustrative talents.
H.A. and Margaret Rey
The first of seven Curious George books published by husband and wife team, Hans Augusto and Margaret Rey. George debuted in 1941.
The Poky Little Puppy
Janette Sebring Lowrey
Originally published in 1942, The Poky Little Puppy was one of the first books of the Little Golden Books series.
The Little Engine That Could
The popular 1930 edition was written by Watty Piper, not a real person but rather a house name used by the publisher, Platt & Munk.