by Guusje Moore

#70, 5 June 2006

First We Kill Off the Parents ...

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... 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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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