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Buying and Selling Children's Books

Come with Me to the Days of Yesteryear

by Guusje Moore

#67, 1 May 2006

In the realm of children's books, historical fiction has varied audiences - nostalgia buyers who want to re-read their childhood favorites, parents who are looking for quality children's literature, and teachers adding to their classroom libraries. Many titles are saleable in almost any condition, and early editions are often highly collectible. If you are lucky enough to find a first edition that is not ex-library you can tap into the collector's market. Many historical fiction titles are series books, so collectors want all of them. Librarians tend to weed an entire series at a time, giving you a good chance of finding a complete or semi-complete set at a Friends of the Library sale.

1930 to 1960 was one of the Golden Ages of children's literature and it was during this time that some of the most enduring and high quality historical fiction was published. These books have remained valuable to booksellers as well.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932. The last book in the series, The First Four Years, came out posthumously in 1971. They are semi-autobiographical and based on her childhood in the American West during the 1870s and 1880s.

Helen Sewell illustrated the early editions. Any Helen Sewell edition that is not ex-library will sell for between $100 and $200. Even the ex-library editions are worth good money. The current editions (and yes, the series is still in print) were illustrated by Garth Williams, a noteworthy artist who is worth a column of his own, in the early 1950s.

The firsts are of value individually; otherwise gather them up and sell them in lots. There are eight books in the Little House series, a companion book called Farmer Boy about her husband's childhood, and a Little House Cookbook. Since the death of Wilder's daughter there have been numerous spin-offs and tie-ins, all of dubious quality. Keep an eye out for the boxed sets - they are always an easy sale. There are numerous "Little House" sites scattered throughout the Midwest, many of which have published small guides and booklets. Such ephemera also have a ready market.

Lois Lenski is best known for her regional series, but prior to penning those she wrote seven historical novels during the 1930s and 1940s. Apart from Indian Captive, they are long, long out of print and highly sought after. There have not been any recently on eBay, but they can sell for upwards of $100 to $300. Her regional books, such as Judy's Journey, Bayou Suzette, and Texas Tomboy are also out of print and collectible. The only exception is Strawberry Girl, which won her the Newbery Award in 1946 and is still in print. Lenski also illustrated the works of others, and those books too are very saleable.

Lenski's artistic style is very distinctive; it has a WPA (Works Progress Administration) mural flavor to it. Lenski was a very prolific author and illustrator, and while some of her books, notably the Cowboy Small series, were recently reprinted, it is still worth your while to grab anything you see written or illustrated by her.

In fact, Lenski illustrated the first four of the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. Like the Little House books, these are autobiographical novels based on the author's childhood. Set in Mankato, Minnesota in the early 1900s, they follow the adventures of the author and her two best friends from age five until their marriages.

Their eBay value has plummeted since the series was re-printed, but her avid fans want the old editions with the original cover art, and even ex-library copies are quite saleable. Non ex-library copies, which are few and far between, are very, very desirable. There are 13 in all: four grammar school books, four high school volumes, two post-high school adventures, and three stand-alone novels. Lenski only illustrated the first four books; all the others were illustrated by Vera Neville. The three stand-alone novels - Carney's House Party, Emily of Deep Valley, and Winona's Pony Cart - are the hardest to find and command the best prices.

Rosemary Sutcliff, a British writer who died in 1992, left behind a voluminous body of work. Her books pop back into print from time to time, which affects their value, but you would be amazed at the prices that some of her titles command on Amazon. The Chief's Daughter, The Shield Ring, and The Changeling are especially valuable. Most of her books are set in pre-Roman or Medieval Britain. More more information, see this web site.

Much to the delight of her fans and the disgust of used booksellers, Sally Watson books are once again in print. They are only available in paperback so there is still a market for the hardbacks, though the prices have fallen. Sally Watson's books, all of which stand alone, are set in England. Some of the titles are Witch of the Glens, The Hornet's Nest, Lark, and Highland Rebel.

Speaking of reprints, more and more books are coming back into print. Image Cascade is responsible for a great number of them, including Sally Watson's. Their web site is worth a look-see since they used the original cover art, and this gives you some idea of what to look for (when it comes to books I am very much a visual learner):

There are also numerous authors who wrote stand-alone as opposed to series books. Carol Ryrie Brink is best known for Caddie Woodlawn, another Newbery Award winner not worth buying for resale, but some of her other books, such as Anything Can Happen on the River or Family Grandstand, are. Brink also wrote contemporary books - Family Sabbatical and The Pink Motel are two favorites - which are steady sellers.

Helen Daringer's Adopted Jane is another popular title - in fact buy any book about orphans. For some reason folks love to read books about children who are alone in the world. Will James wrote numerous books set in the American West, some for children and some for adults. His best-known children's book is Smoky the Cow Horse. I have always sold every one of his books on the first listing.

When listing historical fiction on eBay do try to include the setting and any major events in the auction title. Many folks collect books about a certain state or city or time period, such as The Civil War, the California Gold Rush, or the American West.

Unless it's bag day and you like to sell lots, skip the modern historical fiction. American Girl (now owned by Mattel) originally made collectible dolls depicting girls during various eras of American history and branched into books about them as a sideline. The thin white books are available in hardback, paperback, or boxed sets. The titles all include a girl's name; Happy Birthday, Molly!, Samantha's Surprise, and Josefina Learns a Lesson are some of the many titles. The individual books are only of interest to penny booksellers, but the boxed sets sell for between $20 and $40 if the slipcase is included. Condition does matter with these.

Scholastic is the major player in the school book fair business, which means their books are everywhere. Most current books with a Scholastic imprint are worthless for resale, just like many adult book club titles. In part, this is because they purchase publication rights from mainstream publishers and then issue the books on inferior paper with poor quality bindings.

However, Scholastic publishes several series of historical fiction in diary form - My Name is America, Dear America, My America, and Royal Diaries. What distinguishes these books is that they are not written by syndicates like so many children's series; instead, each is authored individually, often by award-winning authors - Kathryn Lasky, Karen Hesse, Jim Murphy, and Patricia McKissack to name a few. This is literature, in other words, not formulaic twaddle. They are easily spotted: Look for small hardcover books with a ribbon bookmark and no dust jacket. Though they go for pennies on Amazon, they do well grouped as lots on eBay.

So, keep an eye out for vintage cowboys, sunbonnets and high buttoned boots - you never know when you'll pan some gold!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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