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Buying and Selling Children's Books

First We Kill Off the Parents

by Guusje Moore

#70, 5 June 2006

... would seem to be one of the rules for writing a successful children's book. From classics like Peter Pan to modern successes like Harry Potter, there is a long tradition in children's literature of books featuring fatherless children, motherless children, orphans, or children whose parents are simply absent, though they may be replaced by substitutes such as nannies or housekeepers. The message for booksellers is clear: Consider the plot - if one or both parents are absent, take another look.

I'll briefly review some specific authors and series. Keep in mind the option of grouping these books in lots. It's often a good strategy with children's books authors especially because children who like one book by an author will inevitably want to read ALL of them. There is a stage in the process of learning to read where children read series to achieve fluency - a necessary prelude to becoming an avid reader. That's why we all read The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (another character with a conveniently absent father and a faithful housekeeper) as children.

Though still in print P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins books are worth picking up.

Mary Poppins is an archetypal English Nanny but also has magical powers which enable her to take her four young charges on a variety of adventures. Caitlin Flanagan wrote a fascinating article in The New Yorker issue of December 19, 2005, which illuminates the background of the novels, and helps to explain their success.

The popularity of the 1964 Walt Disney movie ensures that there is always an audience Mary Poppins books, and as you might suspect, they do well in lots.

The first four, Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, and Mary Poppins in the Park, were first published from the 1930s through the early 1950s; the last two books, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door, didn't appear until the 1980s. Also look for a cookbook, Mary Poppins in the Kitchen (1975), and an ABC book, Mary Poppins from A to Z. Mary Shepard, daughter of E.H. Shepard, who illustrated A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, also illustrated these.

Chapter 13 of Mary Poppins, Bad Tuesday was re-written by Travers in 1981 to eliminate some rather offensive racial stereotyping. Thus, the older editions are collected by those who want the original text. First and signed editions of the early Mary Poppins books may climb into three and four figures. The chances of finding one of these at a library sale are slim, but hope springs eternal in the heart of a bookseller. Finally, Disney tie-ins are sought after by Disney collectors.

British author Noel Streatfeild (yes, that's spelled correctly) penned the classic "Shoe" books - fiction with performance backgrounds, including Circus Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Ballet Shoes, and Skating Shoes.

These frequently feature motherless children or children whose parents are physically or emotionally absent. The adult figure in her books is usually sustained by a faithful Nanny shaped like "a cottage loaf" and equipped with a suitable proverb for every occasion. Her books go in and out of print, affecting value. Dancing Shoes is easy to come by; Skating Shoes and Circus Shoes tend to command the best prices. These books also do well in lots.

E. Nesbit, another British author, wrote children's fantasy at the turn of the century.

The Wouldbegoods and The Treasure Seekers, among her best-known books, feature the motherless Bastable family. Her work is now in the common domain, so there are multiple reprints of her books available; pick up older editions with attractive illustrations - and again, think lots!

The recent release of the movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has renewed interest in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series.

A full set of seven paperbacks will easily net you $40 or $50 on eBay, and attractive hardback copies are also desirable.

Roald Dahl, best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, features orphans or near orphans in several books, including Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG. Most of his books are in print, but lots are still worth an eBay listing fee. As recent threads on the BookThink Forum attest, it is still possible to find first editions of his books - and then you are talking about some serious money!

Stateside, the Beany Malone books, a teenage malt shop series by Lenora Mattingly Weber set in Denver in the 1950s and 1960s, feature an often-absent father who leaves teenagers Beany and her slightly older brother and sister to fend for themselves for long periods of time.

A housekeeper (many "kill the parents" books feature a faithful household retainer who cooks the meals and does the housekeeping) is the only adult presence. Beany Malones are much reprinted, but there is a still a ready market for ex-library copies among nostalgia buyers.

Anne of Green Gables is another classic orphan series that is still in print but does well in lots. Set on Prince Edward Island, these books, written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, feature a spunky - of course, almost all orphan heroines seem to be spunky and perky! - red-headed girl who comes to live with an older couple.

Look for sets and older editions, also for videos of the popular television series based on the books. The Japanese are fanatical Anne of Green Gables fans, making Montgomery an author who is especially worth marketing internationally.

Helen Fern Daringer wrote stand-alone girls' books. Adopted Jane, illustrated by Kate Seredy, is considered her best. It has been recently reprinted, but hardback ex-library copies are still sought by those who read it as children. Another stand-alone orphan book is The Bound Girl (1957) by Nan Denker. Set in Massachusetts during Colonial times, it features a French orphan who lands in a strict Puritan household. This hard-to-find book could net you $50-$100 on eBay. A third stand-alone is Mary Chase's Loretta Mason Potts (1959). Double flashpoints apply here - orphans and magic. Loretta Potts finds a door to another world where life is wonderful and her every wish is granted. Mary Chase is best known as the author of the play Harvey; you may have seen the very funny Jimmy Stewart movie about a giant, invisible white rabbit.

Margaret Anderson's Searching for Shona is back in print again (I really do wish publishers would stop this annoying habit!), but the nostalgic still crave old ex-library copies. The setting is Scotland during World War II. While being evacuated, Margaret changes places with Shona, a poor orphan. Anderson's other books are out of print. Many use the device of time travel - yet another flashpoint - and To Nowhere and Back could net you $100 on Amazon or eBay!

Another series of books with double flashpoints, featured recently in an issue of 50/50, are photographer Dare Wright's Edith the Lonely Doll series. With their gingham trimmed covers these are readily spotted books, oversized and illustrated with black and white photos of Edith and her stuffed bear friends. The first few books in the series were recently reprinted but later ones are still out of print and highly sought after. You'll often find these in the picture book section at library sales. Oh - the double flashpoints? Orphans and dolls.

Elizabeth Enright, best known for Thimble Summer, a 1938 Newbery Book, also wrote a charming series about the Melendy Family featuring four active, artistic and imaginative children, a deceased mother, a traveling father, and a faithful housekeeper named Cuffy.

The Saturdays, the first book in the series, is set in New York City during the early days of World War II; the others - The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two - are set in a small town in upstate New York. Both this series and her Gone-Away Lake series are in print, but only in paperback, leaving a good market for hardcovers.

In 1942 Gertrude Chandler Warner wrote The Boxcar Children, the story of four orphans who fear their grandfather and go to live in a railway boxcar.

Of course, at the end of the story they discover that their grandfather is really a kind, rich gentleman who has been searching for them all along. The gender roles are very stereotypical of the times, but it's still a fun read. In recent years, the story spun off an extensive series of mysteries that are worth listing in - guess what? - LOTS! The hardbacks, especially the older ones, can be sold individually; homeschoolers snap them up.

Helen Doss's autobiography, The Family Nobody Wanted, is a true life orphan tale about how her family adopted twelve mixed race children in the early 1950s - a time when that sort of thing just wasn't done. Read to death by baby boomers, it's back in print, but old copies still sell.

Lemony Snicket's Baudelaire siblings are a modern orphan phenomenon.

There are now twelve books in his Series of Unfortunate Events, and a thirteenth (final) volume is scheduled to come out in October 2006. These tongue-in-cheek tales recount the adventures of the Baudelaire siblings and their almost Dickensian lives of misery and woe. The first book in the series, The Bad Beginning, was published in 1999, and hypermodern collectors are driving up the prices. Good news for booksellers: Firsts can still be found on thrift shop shelves. Unusual for collectible first editions, these books were issued without dust jackets. Another good seller in lots, especially if you find multiple copies on bag day. Lemony Snicket is a pseudonym for Daniel Handler; he published his first novel, The Basic Eight (1999), under this name. Watch for first editions of this one. The usual rule that early books by authors who later became blockbusters are valuable certainly holds true here.

When grouping books into lots that aren't worth listing individually, consider using "orphans" as organizing theme and include it in your auction title.

Here are some additional titles to look for: Runway Alice and The Ready Made Family, both by Frances Salomon Murphy; Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher; They Loved to Laugh by Kathryn Worth; Calico Bush by Rachel Field: and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. You'll often find old Scholastic paperback editions of these titles.

Whatever resonance it is that "orphan" strikes in the heart of the reader, for the bookseller it is a flashpoint well worth memorizing - right up there with twins, cats, witches, and mice!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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