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The Best of Tomes, The Worst of Tomes
Part II. A Guide to Selling Anthologies

by Michele Behan

#99, 23 July 2007

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..." So began Charles Dickens' classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The same could be said of a classic children's book, whose innocuous beginnings have spawned more than a century's worth of debate, dialogue and controversy.

That book is, of course, The Story of Little Black Sambo.

It's a good story as far as storytelling goes - one in which a little Indian boy is chased by tigers and has his colorful clothes taken but ultimately survives to not only retrieve his clothing but eat 169 pancakes flavored with butter made from quarrelling tigers running around a tree.

Written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, the book made its first appearance in England in 1899, followed shortly thereafter by an American edition in 1900. Since that time, it has enjoyed numerous reprintings, has been widely translated and, for many years, was considered a classic of children's literature.

Helen Bannerman wrote the book for her own children while living in India as the wife of an English Army surgeon at the turn of the 19th century. While Mrs. Bannerman shuttled back and forth on long train journeys between her husband, who was busily investigating the causes of bubonic plague, and her two sheltered daughters, she composed little stories for the children's amusement. From such noble pursuits arose the tale of Little Black Sambo in 1898, from which Mrs. Bannerman created a little book, illustrated and bound by herself.

Alice Bond, an English friend of Mrs. Bannerman, was captivated by the story and, believing that it should be published, brought the text and illustrations to London. Grant Richards, a seemingly unscrupulous British publisher, acquired the copyright for a mere five British pounds and promptly published the book in 1899 as the fourth volume in his Dumpy Books series. It enjoyed immediate popularity due to its clever story and innovative small format, sized just right for children's hands.

However, Grant Richards failed to protect the copyright. Within a year, Frederick A. Stokes had published the book in the United States, where it was subsequently reprinted in magazines, storybooks and numerous unauthorized editions - many with rewritten texts and new illustrations.

Not only published as a stand-alone book, Little Black Sambo was featured regularly in collections of children's stories, compilations of fairy tales and similar children's anthologies.

So widespread was the story's popularity among children that, according to an article in The New York Times dated October 22, 1931, "Perhaps every child starts out with Mother Goose and Little Black Sambo...."

While the book was initially regarded as a childhood favorite, by the mid-twentieth century, Little Black Sambo became an object of heated debate as racial consciousness grew. Educators recommended that the book be removed from library shelves, while others staunchly defended the book as a lovable staple of childhood and the harmless victim of its own era. The setting of the book in India and its use of Indian characters was touted as a counterpoint to the arguments of racial stereotyping.

Nevertheless, Bannerman's use of thick lips, rolling eyes and frizzy hair in her illustrations of Little Black Sambo led to charges that the book was offensive to African-Americans, along with her use of the name Sambo, which had a long history in minstrelsy. As early as the 1830s, a song titled "Sambo's Address to his Bred'ren" was performed in American minstrel shows. Such shows traditionally used white performers in blackface to caricature Southern blacks as a highly popular form of entertainment.

Complicating the racial issue were the many unauthorized American editions resulting from British publisher Grant Richards' failure to secure the copyright in 1899. The story often appeared in American editions with illustrations other than the original Bannerman pictures. In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the book was commonly illustrated with characters that appeared more African-American than Indian, and the setting was sometimes eerily reminiscent of a Southern plantation, rather than an Indian jungle.

The cover illustration of the original Bannerman version shows Little Black Sambo attired in red shirt, blue trousers and purple shoes.

However, by the time Favorite Nursery Stories was published by Saalfield Publishing Company in 1920, the anthology's opening illustration of Little Black Sambo depicts a barefoot child with distinctly pickaninny overtones and his mother, Mumbo, bears a striking resemblance to Aunt Jemima.

Also, in the 1920 American Saalfield version, the illustration of parents Mumbo and Jumbo evokes the image of slaves working on a plantation, despite the presence of palm trees and a monkey.

By the mid-twentieth century, The Story of Little Black Sambo had fallen into disfavor among many educators and purveyors of children's literature. The New York Times reported on February 5, 1956 that Toronto's Board of Education had ordered the removal of Little Black Sambo from bookshelves in the city's schools "... after hearing complaints from a Negro delegation that the 58-eight-year-old children's favorite was a cause of mental suffering to Negro citizens in general and children in particular."

It should be noted that a number of Canada's leading librarians decried Toronto's book ban, citing the long history of the book as a favorite of children. Nevertheless, bans of Little Black Sambo escalated as school districts throughout North America followed suit. In the decade of civil rights marches and desegregation, The New York Times reported on October 20, 1964 that schools in Lincoln, Nebraska had banned the book and ordered it removed from school libraries.

As the 1960s unfolded and race consciousness led to the demise of Little Black Sambo as a mainstay of children's literature in America, anthologies that featured collections of favorite children's stories were no longer including Little Black Sambo among their literary selections.

Beginning as early as the 1940s, Childcraft eliminated Little Black Sambo from its collection of stories. Childcraft, the well-known encyclopedic series geared to young children, was published by The Quarrie Corporation until 1949, when it was acquired by Field Enterprises. Until 1949, Little Black Sambo was routinely included in Childcraft's anthology of children's stories. However, the new edition of Childcraft, published in 1949 by Field Enterprises, omitted the story and no later Childcraft set includes it. The illustrations in older Childcraft sets consist of two color line drawings and thus are not quite as collectible as more colorful renditions of Little Black Sambo found in other childhood anthologies of the era.

In Part I of this series on selling anthologies, we already discussed the hidden flashpoints inherent in certain anthologies that can easily transform an otherwise so-so sale into one approaching or exceeding three figures. Not only is it crucial to know what to look for at the point of purchase, but sales presentation can be equally, if not more, important in order to maximize the value of an anthology.

Many booksellers seem to be under the mistaken impression that if you offer a book on an auction site such as eBay, it will automatically follow that the cream will rise to the top and the book will effortlessly attain its "true" value in the marketplace. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly in the case of anthologies, when the title of the book often gives no clue as to the treasures contained therein. A successful seller has to make it their goal to first recognize the profitable flashpoints and then advertise those flashpoints to the buyer through the use of clever titling and ample description in the text of the listing.

The difference in final sales price can be substantial solely due to proper marketing of an anthology that may not look like much from the outside but which can be a veritable goldmine for the seller who is able to recognize and market a flashpoint to a collector looking for that particular niche.

For example, many anthologies containing Little Black Sambo are otherwise nondescript volumes of assorted children's stories that can easily be overlooked by a potential buyer. Black Americana is a burgeoning and profitable niche of collectibility. You may agree that you would never pass up a reasonably priced title of The Story of Little Black Sambo, but would any of these books catch your eye?

Favorite Nursery Stories

The Children's Treasury

Anthology of Children's Literature

Better Homes and Gardens Story Book

Each of the anthologies listed above contains an illustrated version of Little Black Sambo for which collectors will happily pay you good money.

Whenever you run across a pre-1960 anthology volume of children's stories - no matter how boring it may appear from the outside - pick it up and browse through the contents for the magic words "Little Black Sambo." If you see the story listed, particularly if it is an illustrated version, know that a collector will most likely be interested. Be sure to include the words Little Black Sambo - rather than the name of the anthology - in your auction title.

Here are some recent sales prices realized in May, 2007 on the eBay site for children's anthologies containing Little Black Sambo:

The Children's Treasury (n.d.) - 32 page story with art by Charles Thorson $129.00

Anthology of Children's Literature (1950s) - Johnson, Sickles & Sayer $48.00

Better Homes and Gardens Story Book (1950) - $86.77

Some might question the ethics of profiting from an item whose very collectibility stems from its status as a racist book banned for offensiveness to African-Americans. This is a concern common to collectors and sellers of Black Americana, despite the fact that many collectors of stereotypical black memorabilia are black Americans.

In an article written by Julian Bond, National Chairman of the Board of NAACP, in the introduction to Antique Traders Black Americana Price Guide, edited by Kyle Husfloen, Mr. Bond explains why he avidly collects Black Americana.

"I value my collection, both for its material worth and its deeper meaning to me. Prices of black collectibles/memorabilia have risen sharply in the last two decades, as more and more collectors begin to buy and assemble collections of their own ... They have another worth - beyond scarcity and dollars - as well. They celebrate perseverance, endurance and success. They honor generations before mine ... They are our common past; silently, they face the future."

Other collectors have cited the historic value of black memorabilia both as a record of the racist attitudes held by society in times past and a safeguard against the perpetuation of the negative stereotypes reflected in the artifacts.

Jeanette Carson, a pioneer in collecting black memorabilia, put it this way, "They don't represent the way black people look. They represent the mentality of the people who produced them. I consider the negative items the black holocaust. You cannot sweep it under the rug."

So the next time you encounter a nondescript children's anthology containing a version of Little Black Sambo in its pages, remember that, while we cannot erase the past, we can preserve it for the collectors and historians of future generations.

Happy Hunting!

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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