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Collecting Children's Picture Books

Curious George by H A Rey

Reading with young children is a near-miraculous experience. Their eyes grow wide trying to absorb the images and ideas spread across the pages, which seem giant in their small hands. It’s also a wonder to witness what a force of destruction those small hands are, as they joyously turn and tear pages. The same curiosity that drives young readers to cherish books also promotes their annihilation and subsequent scarcity. A children's book that's in nice condition probably wasn't read by a child.

Children’s picture books date back to the 17th century, but they really came into their own in the 1920s when literacy became near universal and color printing finally became practical. The resulting books were often beautifully illustrated and cleverly written. The period between the wars launched the careers of dozens of author-artists who defined what we think of as the modern children’s book. They provoke strong feelings of nostalgia in adults, making for a very hot collecting field.

The first notable author of the modern picture book was Wanda Gag. A graphic designer and painter, Gag wrote and illustrated one of the most successful picture books of the 1920s, Millions of Cats, a million-seller published in 1928. Over the next decade she penned more than a dozen picture books.

Other prominent children’s book authors and illustrators who got their start in this era include Lois Lenski (The Little Engine that Could, 1930), H. A. Rey (Curious George, 1941), Jean de Brunhoff (Babar, 1931), Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeline, 1933), Dr. Seuss (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, 1937), and Tasha Tudor (Pumpkin Moonshine, 1938).

1940 Caldecott Medal Winner

Publishers took note of the success of Gag and other artists and began to look for ways to expand the market. In the late 1930s, the illustrator Georges Duplaix approached Simon & Schuster with a new concept: a series of books for very young readers, written and drawn by members of the Artists and Writers Guild. The books would be bound in pictorial boards (hardcovers with color pictures on the front and back) and priced as little as 25 cents per copy, compared to one or two dollars, the price of traditional picture books at the time. Duplaix’s series, the Little Golden Books, quickly grew into a publishing phenomenon that continues to this day.

Since 1938, the American Library Association has awarded the Caldecott Medal, a prize for the best children’s picture book of the year. Acquiring first editions of the winning books is a very popular (and expensive) collecting area.

Children's book experts agree that condition is paramount if you are concerned with the ultimate resale value of your collection. Kids books tend to be judged with more latitude in condition so collectors can underestimate the availability of nice copies. Collectors should look at a lot of books to really get an idea of what's out there. Helen Younger of Aleph-Bet Books concurs. “Many book sellers and buyers alike don’t have the experience to judge what’s really in fine condition and don’t have the patience to see what else is for sale.” Younger believes there are plenty of children’s picture books. “Just wait a little while,” she advises. “Don’t settle for less.”

Ten Collectible Children's Picture Books

There are so many children’s picture books to choose from so we decided to limit our selection to artists and writers who started their careers in the golden age between the wars.

Madeline

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

A young girl in the hospital for an appendectomy reportedly inspired Ludwig Bemelmans classic series of books about a precocious French girl. This Caldecott Honor Book (a finalist for the medal) inspired six sequels by Bemelmans and the series is still continued by his grandson. First editions in dust jacket, from $1,000.

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The ABC Bunny

The ABC Bunny by Wanda Gag

Wanda Gag was a children’s picture book pioneer, and her books Millions of Cats, The ABC Bunny, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are all classics of the genre. The ABC Bunny was a Newbery Honor Book, another prize given for children’s books. First editions from $1,400 in dust jacket.

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Snow Before Christmas

Snow Before Christmas by Tasha Tudor

Tasha Tudor is one of the most prolific writer-illustrators, with nearly 100 books to her name. She is avidly collected and her early books are both very scarce and can be quite expensive in top condition. An inscribed copy of her first book sold for nearly $20,000 in 2000. This Christmas tale dates from 1941. First editions from $500 in dust jacket.

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Rupert Annuals

Rupert Annuals

One feature of a successful children’s book is that many more volumes with the same characters will inevitably follow it. Rupert Bear, a much-loved character in Britain, is the star of one of the longest-running series in publishing history. He first appeared in the Daily Express in 1920, where the cartoon still runs today (although the illustrator has changed several times). For more than seven decades, a yearly collection of the bear’s adventures have been published as Rupert Annuals. Early editions from $500.

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500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins

500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss dominates most every list of the most popular and influential children’s books, yet he never won a Caldecott Medal. His books are very popular with collectors, but it is very tricky to identify his first editions. Don’t even try to collect Seuss without Dr. Seuss: A Guide to First Editions, an invaluable reference. This early book, about a boy who is threatened by a king, is a favorite of collectors. First editions in dust jacket, from $3,000.

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Histoire de Babar

Histoire de Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

Jean de Brunhoff’s little elephant has charmed children around the world since his first appearance in Histoire de Babar, published in Paris in 1931. English translations soon followed, as did additional titles in the series. Surprisingly, the true first editions in French are easier to come by than the English translations. This example, from 1950, is a pop-up version. From $1,000 in a dust jacket.

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The Lively Little Rabbit

The Lively Little Rabbit by Gustav Tenggren

Gustav Tenggren came to the U.S. from Sweden and went to work for the Walt Disney Company, where he was the art director for Snow White. He also worked on Bambi and Pinocchio. He left Disney and in the 1940s, worked on the Little Golden Book series, illustrating The Poky Little Puppy, the bestselling children’s book of all time. The Lively Little Rabbit, published in 1943, is one of the earliest Little Golden Books and a relatively inexpensive opportunity to own a work from one of the great 20th century illustrators. First editions from $125.

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Easter Rabbit’s Parade

Easter Rabbit's Parade by Lois Lenski

Lois Lenski illustrated the first edition of the classic The Little Engine That Could and she went on to write and illustrate many of her own books. Strawberry Girl won the Newbery Medal for best children’s fiction in 1946. The Easter Rabbit’s Parade, from 1936, is still in print. First editions in dust jacket, from $100.

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Snow White

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

No list of children’s books from the 1930s would be complete without at least one Disney entry. During the Depression, Walt Disney’s cartoon characters became picture book staples in many countries around the world. This film tie-in titled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from the Famous Picture by Walt Disney is one of many examples. From $150 in dust jacket.

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