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Buying and Selling Children's Books

Panning for Gold

by Guusje Moore

#55, 14 November 2005

Children's Books at FOL Sales

"Ex-library" is the kiss of death in some genres; not so with children's books. Bookstores specializing in children's literature are a recent phenomena. Though we all mourn the decline of the independent bookstore, 30 or 40 years ago it was rare to find a bookstore outside of a large urban area. Accordingly, with books published in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, ex-library is often all there is to be found. Yes, there are copies available that aren't ex-library, but for the most part they are few and far between.

The nostalgia factor is a unique feature of selling children's books. Buyers want to open that book they remember (library binding, pictorial cover), run their fingers over the soft library paper, take a deep sniff, and revisit the library of their childhood. They also want a copy of their favorite book to read to their children or grandchildren. When two bidders with nostalgia on their minds go after a book on eBay, the results can be excellent.

Condition matters, but not nearly as much as with adult books. Children's books often have rumpled pages with small tears at the bottom or a stray crayon mark or two. Note any such flaws in your description; don't necessarily pass on the book.

Pricing is a definite advantage. At many FOL sales, the kid's books cost half as much as adult books.

So, what to look for at the next library sale? First, here's what to ignore: almost everything published in the past 10 or 15 years. Pass on current Disney books, TV tie-ins, biographies on flash-in-the-pan pop stars and athletes, and most of the paperback series. Leave everything to the young hordes except, say, a first/first of the first Harry Potter

There are some occupational hazards of shopping in the children's books area. You may get whacked in the shins by an SUV-size stroller. You may witness way too many tired-toddler meltdowns. You may experience the good, the bad and the howling.

If you like to sell books by the lot, series books are worth picking up on bag days or other opportunities for volume buying. Look for Goosebumps, Animorphs, Babysitters' Club, Herbie Jones, Junie B. Jones, Bailey School Kids, and Arthur. Also worth buying are classic series such as Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, and books by Philip Pullman. (In fact, a first/first Pullman may be your winning ticket in the book-sale lottery.)

Little Golden Books and the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books are specialized categories. I rarely buy these because I don't know the field well enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Collectors of these series are extremely fussy as to condition, and they will catch any errors you make in your description. However, Golden Books written or illustrated by Eloise Wilkin are worth picking up; she has quite a fan base. Try selling her books in lots. She specializes in adorable, chubby, rosy-cheeked children.

Most children's non-fiction is worthless, with some exceptions. Grab anything written by Isaac Asimov. His books are likely to be found in the Science section (Dewey Decimal Number in the 500s), and he's collectible. It doesn't matter how old the books are; in fact, the older, the better! Asimov was very prolific, so it's a rare sale that doesn't have at least one of his books. Old books on space exploration-the ones that claim that "one day man will go to the moon"-have fans among gizmo geeks, who treasure the illustrations.

Another exception in non-fiction: Cookbooks (Dewey Decimal 641). Many juvenile authors had a cookbook tie-in. Look for Beany Malone, Nancy Drew, Little House on the Prairie, Cathy Leonard, Boxcar Children, Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh. Many of these cookbooks had short runs toward the end of their series and are hard to find. Any cookbook entitled The So-and-So Cookbook is worth a second look. These books have a dual audience: series fans and cookbook collectors.

The only biographies worth picking up are in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. These are short biographies you may have read yourself. Bindings began with turquoise cloth and then moved to orange or light beige. The focus is on the youth of such notables as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Robert E. Lee. These books are held in ill repute by current librarians; you'll find multiple titles if a librarian has recently decimated that section. The books are easy to spot. Their size is distinctive, and the titles all follow the same pattern-Franklin Roosevelt: Boy of Four Freedoms, Herbert Hoover: Boy Engineer, Pocahontas: Brave Girl. They have been reprinted in paperback for the home-school market, but collectors want the hardbacks. For photos, check out this site.

In History (900s), keep an eye out for Landmark Books. Published by Random House in the 1950s and 1960s, many of these books were written by well-respected historians such as Bruce Cantor and Frank Dobie. Potential customers include home schoolers and collectors. You may also find Landmark Books in Biography (920) and Social Science (300s). I have had especially good luck with the World War II titles. For flashpoints, check out Valerie's Living Books.

Sell the valuable titles individually, and put the others together in lots.

The only other 300s worth bothering are the 398s. It is often possible to strike FOL gold with fairy and folk tales. Watch for books illustrated by collectible artists such as Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, and Arthur Rackham. Libraries tend to hold on to these and weed them out only when space is a premium, so you may find some very old books in this section. Don't let shabby exteriors deter you. Inside you'll often find stunning illustrations printed on shiny paper.

Also in the 398s are the holiday books, another area worth mining. Tasha Tudor wrote and illustrated a book for almost every seasonal celebration. Not all of her books have been reprinted, and she has an avid following. She also wrote a couple of cookbooks.

You can also find Tudor's books in Religion (200s). Also worth a look in both 398 and the 200s are books by the author-illustrator duo Edgar and Ingri D'Aularie. They won a Caldecott award for their biography on Abraham Lincoln, but pass on that one because it's a common book. Their other biographies, however, are worth snatching up. Keep an eye out for their collections of fairy tales, folk tales, myths and legends. These are highly prized oversize books. The D'Aularie style is very distinctive.

You'll find stacks of worthless series books in the 300s and the 900s. These books quickly become obsolete nowadays and are being weeded out at a rapid clip. Books on individual countries, states and careers are a dime a dozen.

The 400s (Language) also aren't worth bothering with, except for books by Fred Gwynne Better known as Herman Munster from the TV show, he had a successful second career as an author-illustrator of children's books. He specialized in idioms, so librarians cataloged his books in the 400s. However, his titles look like picture books, so keep an eye out for them in that section also. His books appeal to both his TV fans and collectors of kiddie lit. Titles to look for include Chocolate Moose for Dinner and The King Who Rained.

I normally bypass the 700s (the Arts) entirely, other than horse books written by Marguerite Henry or illustrated by Sam Savitt. One other title worth grabbing is Noel Streatfeild's First Book of the Ballet. Ballet books illustrated with photographs of famous ballet stars can do well, but skip any books by Jill Kerment such as A Very Young Dancer or A Very Young Gymnast. Also resist any sports or craft books.

There are some poetry books of interest in the 800s. Pick up books illustrated by Tasha Tudor or other classic and collectible artists. Mother Goose books will be either in the 800s or 398. This genre has many collectible illustrators, such as Jessie Wilcox Smith and Marguerite D'Angeli.

I will leave for another time two other gold fields to explore in children's books: easy and fiction. Meanwhile, at your next library sale make your way though the elementary school teachers, the home-schooling moms, and the kids wrestling under the tables and check out the children's selection. You'll be glad you did!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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